Variety pack

This week was reminiscent of a stroll through Judaean hill country, rife with ups and downs. (I would have compared it to a certain speedy amusement park ride, but that would be cliche). Elder Jensen called it his “best worst week;” I’ll just call it my best.

Monday was a decent day. For those wondering how that teaching appointment went, (the one I lost my voice right before) it actually went fairly well. Elder Heaps gave me a blessing beforehand, and I regained my (very hoarse) voice for the duration of the lesson. We Skyped in Chinese with a 17-year-old kid in Taiwan. We connected well, since he was interested in computers and design like me, and he asked if he would get to talk with us next week as well.

Elders Wheeler’s and Robinson’s didn’t go as well. They Skyped with a different Taiwanese member who burst into laughter when he heard them talking and couldn’t stop for the remainder of the lesson. They were both trying not to laugh so hard that tears started rolling down their cheeks. Elder Robinson’s face turned bright red.

Almost a week later, Elder Cook, a recently departed Taichung elder, sent them an email saying that he met that same member in Taiwan and saw that he had a screenshot of Elders Wheeler and Robinson set as his phone background. It seems that they left quite an impact.

Same place; different perspectives.

​Our uniquely aesthetic residence hallway.

​The MTC restrooms are a scenic locale you won’t want to miss.

My Tuesday journal entry title reads: “Difficulties: I am having them.” It was a difficult day, mostly because I had to sit through two meetings with my cough and sore throat. The extra-dry cooled air in the assembly hall transformed my sinuses into a windswept desert. I had to cough really badly, but didn’t want to interrupt. So, I sat there with my eyes watering, heaving back and forth silently and doing everything short of falling on the ground and rolling around foaming at the mouth. I did that for the first two-hour meeting and the second one-hour meeting.

Wednesday was when the week suddenly became excellent. I rested a lot, regained my voice, taught some good lessons, and our zone got a new Taipei district! The new missionaries really cheered me up. Thursday was good as well. I recovered almost completely.

Friday morning: Elders Jensen and Vaughn run up to us hopping with excitement. Rumor has it that our travel plans have arrived! We sprint to the mailbox, I open it, and sure enough:??????????

Never has a piece of paper with so little information on it made me so excited. When we brought them to Elders Robinson and Wheeler, they jumped in the air and whooped, drawing angry glances from a group of missionaries studying nearby. The other districts soon followed suit, and everyone’s spirits were soaring.

(Sister Fisher not present in this picture, but she received hers too.)

So happy that the right side of my face forgot to smile.

We mill about, viewing our travel plans.

In this moment, our whole zone was euphoric.

Nothing could put a damper on our spirits more than what happened next. One of the administrators in our building told us that our visas were delayed and that our plans would be cancelled. He said we would leave the 12th at the earliest. We were devastated! Elder Huntsman swung his fist into the cinderblock wall.

Elders Jensen, Vaughn, Heaps, and I ran straight to the travel office. They bemusedly told us to completely disregard the administrator and trust only information coming directly from them. They told us that we didn’t have our visas yet, but that they weren’t expecting any problems and that we should still get them on time. We walked back exuberantly, and sure enough, this certain man ate his words. Then, he told us that he had just received an email saying that our visas had just barely arrived!

We high-fived and ran to the travel office to make sure–and they told us, once again, that absolutely nothing had happened. They were exasperated about the situation and asked us who this imaginative individual might be. I’m not going to trust anything out of his mouth again. Bottom line, though: we have seen our travel plans, we know we have, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise.

Eating a bunch of food. I received a watermelon and a variety of other fruits in the mail.

​Still-life featuring my new all-Chinese nametags. (By the way, I’m Li Zhanglao: 利長老)

​Still-life featuring other articles found on my mini-desk.

The hilarity of teaching Chinese lessons continued this week. My companion and I had our first Chinese Bible slip-up, asking one of our “investigators” to read John 4:5-8 instead of 3:5-8. “(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)” We didn’t even realize it was incorrect when he read it in Chinese, so we spent a long time trying to explain how what he’d just read related to baptism. Needless to say, he was quite confused.

In their lesson with the same investigator, Elders Wheeler and Robinson tried to teach the Word of Wisdom, but when the investigator asked which foods he could eat according to the Word of Wisdom, the only things they knew how to say were “meat” and “cucumbers.”

It rained heavily on Saturday morning. The sky was especially dark, and water streamed and splashed from the gutters and ran in sheets across the slick sidewalks. After the storm, the morning light revealed many woodchips scattered across the walkways and roads. Dirt lay thinly in miniature deltas where the rain had run from the flowerbeds onto the concrete. It was a good morning, and I felt great.

During dinner that day, Elder Wheeler slurped down 10 cups of the MTC’s blue jello, a vile substance with some resemblance to gelatinous drain cleaner. Suddenly, he rose to his feet and strode purposefully to the restroom. No sooner had he barreled in the door than a fluorescent-blue flood burst forth from his lips, barely making the trashcan–and an unfortunate and very confused elder who happened to be standing in the way.

The MTC has the best generic-brand cereal around. The Tootie Fruities are far superior to the Marshmallow Mateys, though.

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Myself in typical P-day garb. Note that my parents sent me a higher-quality pocket protector.

Sunday meals are the worst. I felt really sick after eating this. I should have just stuck to the cereal.

On Sunday, our new district leader was assigned: Elder Jensen. After my three weeks, the burden of twice-daily mail delivery was lifted from my shoulders. It is hard to believe that we have only eleven more days in the MTC. Eleven more rings of Elder Heaps’ despicable alarm clock await, eleven more bowls of Tootie Fruities and Marshmallow Mateys, eleven hurried morning walks under the MTC’s ever-present walkway canopies. In eleven days, we’ll see the world again.

Last night, we six 25A elders took the long way back to our residence. In the drizzle, we walked along the road that traverses the MTC’s perimeter. We walked on the rainy asphalt and glimpsed the outside world: the lighted front of a supermarket, glowing in the wet darkness. Then, it passed behind trees and disappeared.

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Ye Shall Be Struck Dumb

Sunday, 2:00 AM: I woke up feeling atrocious. My throat was burning and swollen, and every breath came with effort as a rasping wheeze. I tried to say something, but my throat was so inflamed I couldn’t utter a single word. I hauled myself out of bed and stumbled around in the dark for a while. I tried to go back to sleep, but my head was filled with many voices speaking Chinese so fast I could barely pick out a few words. My mind could not rest, and my heart was pounding and my head full of pressure.

The MTC is about as close to the optimal disease-perpetuating environment as possible. Take 2,000 18-19-year-olds, cram them into an area about as big as two city blocks, have them continuously incubate in small groups and then recombine thrice daily in a crowded cafeteria serving questionable food, and you’ll have a great study group for pathogen spread. When I started getting sick on Thursday, it came as no surprise; rather, I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.

​Making napkin snowflakes with Elder Shurtleff on Sunday.

​More napkin snowflakes.

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​The pictures of napkin snowflakes continue.

Sunday went so badly for me it was almost funny. After getting approximately an hour of sleep, I rolled out of bed in a hazy delirium, undressed and wrapped in a towel, and followed my roommates to the showers, closing the door behind me. I forgot my soap and couldn’t go back to get it without someone taking my stall. When my roommates and I finished our showers, we realized that none of us had our keys. We were locked out of our room with nothing but our towels on. Elder Jensen called the front desk, but they said we had to come up in person to get a key.

There was no way we were going to walk across campus and through 1M (the main building, where even P-day clothing is prohibited) in what little raiment we were wearing, so we waited, soaking wet and half-naked, in the hallway for 30 minutes as everyone got ready. Thankfully, two other elders were willing to go to the front desk on our behalf and bring back the key.

Rendered almost completely mute by my illness, I slept until lunch, ate in the cafeteria, and sat agonizingly through a two-hour branch meeting. As I languished in silence, my ears became very congested and I developed a painful infection in one. The second the closing prayer ended, my companion and I dashed back to our room. I took a shower and slept for an hour. When I woke up, I felt a lot better.

Then, our zone leaders knocked on our door and warned us that bedbugs have been found in our residence hall.

So, this week was a trying one. It was probably the first hard week I’ve had at the MTC. With my voice pretty much completely gone, I can’t practice Chinese at all. I’m supposed to teach someone over Skype this evening, and I have no idea how I’m going to do it. However, I’m trying to stay positive. I saw a doctor at the clinic, and my illness is not pneumonia or strep throat, just a cold and mild bronchitis. He told me to take four 200-mg Ibuprofen every six hours, two Benadryl before bed, Sudafed every four hours, and drink at least 1-2 liters of water per day. So far, this seems to be helping. The Ibuprofen takes away most of the pain in my ear and throat. The doctor prescribed me an antibiotic for my ear as well. If I’m not significantly better in a week, I’ll see him again.

Although I faced a lot of challenges and annoyances this week–mostly on Sunday–there were still many humorous or enjoyable moments. Elders Wheeler and Robinson wanted to teach one of our “investigators” about the Ten Commandments, so they tried to get him to read them from our Chinese character bible. Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to find specific scriptures in this bible, since the pages turn right to left, the characters run vertically down the pages, the verse numbers are tiny superscripts, and the book names are all transliterated into characters we can’t read.

Thus, instead of having Brother Zhang read starting in Exodus 20:3, they accidentally told him to start in Exodus 21:1. Upon reading several verses, he seemed pretty confused, and asked them a question they didn’t understand. They hurriedly bore testimony and moved on to a different subject. So, Brother Zhang may not know the Ten Commandments, but at least now he’ll know when to let that Hebrew servant of his free.

On Saturday, Elder Wheeler got a really nice new camera. I think it’s not technically a DSLR, since it doesn’t have mirrors, but it’s still really good. In light of this new purchase, he and I decided to have a hipster photography deathmatch. Dutch angles, cheap oversaturation effects, and vignettes abounded. Despite my camera being relatively cheap, I still managed to hold my own. Here are some of my favorites, all taken by me:

Elder Heaps’ favorite cyan tie, mere minutes before it was destroyed. More on that topic later.

Elder Vaughn models his nametag and Celtic CTR ring.

​Another one of Elder Vaughn’s ring.

​Elder Wheeler with his new camera.

One last entertaining story. After the aforementioned competition, I went back to studying at my desk. I was sitting there when Elders Wheeler and Perkins, from a different district, thought it would be a good idea to break one of their old Pilot G2 pens–known as Excalibur–in half. Elder Wheeler used his heavy-duty fountain pen to brace it, and Elder Perkins pulled back hard.

Black ink sprayed everywhere. The two halves of the shattered G2 ink cartridge spun through the air, flinging Pollock-esque drips and loops all across Elder Wheeler’s white shirt and tie. Ink flew through the air and splattered all over Elder Heaps’ face and clothing. A single drop shot towards my white shirt, but was miraculously blocked by the chopsticks protruding from my shirt pocket.

Everything was cleaned up quickly, aside from Elders Heaps’ and Wheeler’s shirts and ties, which were past all hope. We all returned to quietly studying in the classroom.

Elder Vaughn finally received an Australian flag to complement our classroom.

On the whole, this week was a challenge, but I haven’t lost any motivation or hope. I’m confident that I can keep moving forward through my sickness and setbacks. I only have two more Sundays here before I leave, and I’m looking forward to that long-awaited day. In the meantime, I’ll continue to rest as much as I can and regain my health so I can actually speak again. Thank you for your love and support. Bye!

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Bad Food, Good Food, and Hump Day

Wednesday, August 6: my first truly awful meal at the MTC. It looked like a normal dinner at first–a deep-fried piece of unrecognizable meat with mashed potatoes and microwaved green beans, all inundated in lukewarm gravy. As soon as my fork hit the meat, though, I knew something was wrong. The crusty slab was as hard as a block of wood. I dashed my knife against its surface, and at last the crust shattered. Rock-hard greasy fragments rained down on the table. Within the crust, the dry meat had shrunk to a fraction of its former size. It had become a tough, dense, and fibrous mass, clinging tightly to the inside of its shell; only by hammering at it with my utensils was I able to partly dislodge it.

Needless to say, I did not partake of the leathery meat. Assuming my serving had been an outlier, I walked back and picked up another plate. To my dismay, the meat was just as bad as before. So, I ate three bowls of ice cream instead.

Aside from this memorable meal, last week was unique for several reasons. First, everyone in my district going to Taipei–everyone except Elder Vaughn and Sister Lew, who are going to the Sydney North mission–had our hump day between Wednesday and Thursday. We’re now more than halfway through our stay in the MTC. We’ll leave on Sept. 5, and Elder Vaughn and Sister Lew will leave on the 10th, so their hump day was on Saturday. Second, we all hit our one-month mark on Saturday. Third, an anonymous benefactor sent me three dozen doughnuts in the mail!

This confluence of factors allowed our district to have two amazing parties this week. (Party == sitting at a table and eating food).

First party: Taipei hump day. We ate one box of the doughnuts, leaving two dozen uneaten. Here, Elder Vaughn inspects the doughnuts:

One box of doughnuts lies open on the table. Sister Lew, blinded by the camera’s flash, closes her eyes momentarily.

Second party: 1 month/Sydney North hump day. Here, we stand holding a paper reading “1 month:”

Sisters Strong and Jenkins weren’t ready for this picture.

We sat at a table at the northwest corner of the MTC to enjoy our feast.

Ours was an excellent party. All of the elders and I ran out onto the grass and threw Sour Patch candies 20-30 feet into the air and attempted to catch them in our mouths. (Don’t worry, Mom; we were careful to avoid any choking danger.) We looked crazy running around in the dark with our mouths open and our heads turned skyward. It was night, after class, and the streetlights around the MTC’s perimeter cast a bluish light across the grass. I pay unusual attention to the quality of light here because it’s the only thing that ever changes.

Aside from these diversions, this week proceeded as usual. My Chinese is progressing very well; some days I speak no English at all. We’ve continued to improve our teaching skills, and we teach lessons to teachers role-playing as investigators almost every day. I read aloud from the Book of Mormon every day in pinyin and whatever characters I can recognize. In the morning, I run two miles around the carpeted indoor track and then play foursquare in the gym. Sometimes I ride the stationary bikes in the fitness center. We study in our classroom from morning until night.

I accidentally took this picture in black and white:

On Sundays, we walk around the temple for an hour. It’s a great time to relax and take pictures.

Elder Jensen feigns surprise as Elders Vaughn, Robinson, and Heaps look on:

​A humorous coincidence of perspective:

​It seems to me that everyone has gone slightly crazy after our time in the MTC. Elder Jensen plucked a giant corpulent purple flower from a tree and carried it with him for a whole day:

A few days ago, our teacher misread another one of our grammar practice sentences. The translation–“The bishop makes covenants in the baptismal font”–wasn’t that funny, but I started laughing and couldn’t stop. Everyone started laughing. I laughed so hard that tears rolled down my cheeks. It took several minutes for me to regain my composure.

Weekly selfie of me and my companion:

One recent disappointment was the failure of my pocket protector to actually protect my pocket. On Tuesday, I looked down at my pocket and saw that ink had soaked through the fabric. There was a large black splotch on the front of my shirt at the base of the pocket. Upon closer inspection, it became evident that my pen had poked a hole through the plastic protector and leaked all over.

I don’t recall anything else unusual happening this week, so I here conclude my letter. Bye!

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Cloth and Vinegar

One day, a boy was sent by his parents to buy some cloth and vinegar. After purchasing said items, he was walking home when he saw a huge eagle. Startled by the sudden appearance of the bird, he spilled the cloth and vinegar on the ground. Swaths of fabric spooled through the air and landed crumpled atop the wet earth.

This unusual story comes from a Chinese tongue twister my companion told me about. Strangely enough, I feel that this story has deep personal significance to me and recent events that have contributed to my growth as a missionary.

Just kidding–I included it because I don’t have anything else to write about. This week was even less eventful than last, at least until yesterday. I’ll tell you what happened, but first enjoy the following images:

Unnatural seated pose. Notice that we rearranged the classroom again.

​Our mirror has a built-in mustache.

​Elder Heaps in the act of donning his jacket as Elder Jensen studies diligently in the background.

​My pocket notebook where I write down pinyin and English that I don’t know so I can memorize it.

​Elders Heaps, Jensen, and Vaughn sitting in the classroom.

Yesterday was our first fast Sunday in the MTC. Since we ate neither breakfast nor lunch, we spent the first three hours of our day in personal study instead. I read through the gospel of John and was studying some other scriptures when our branch president, President Woodfield, knocked on our classroom door and asked me to come out into the hall. He asked me if I would be willing to be the new district leader, and I said yes. I’m the new mailman!

At 10:00 AM, we went to a mission conference. All 2,000 of the missionaries piled into the auditorium, and the conference was broadcast to the West Campus as well. I think the MTC presidency knows that the missionaries can’t do much more than laze around catatonic while fasting, so they schedule the two-hour conference to coincide with fast Sunday.

I was relaxing and taking notes for about an hour and fifteen minutes as the presidents and their wives spoke. Then, President Nally stood up. He said he was going to call two missionaries forward to bear their testimonies. I wasn’t worried, since I had a 99.9% chance of not being picked. The first sister was from Taiwan, and was going to serve at Temple Square. She closed her testimony and walked off of the stand relieved. President Nally stood back up and opened his mouth to speak.

Before the words even left his mouth, I knew what he was going to say.

"Is there an Elder David Elliott here?"

I stood up in the bleachers, numb. 2,000 heads turned to face me. My district cheered "Jiayou!" (good luck). My legs carried me down and across the floor as thousands of missionaries stared at me and the big screens on the wall switched to a wide-angle view to show me walking towards the stand. With much effort, I molded my features into a horrid death mask of a smile.

President Nally called me up onto the stand and asked me to share a brief testimony. He stepped away from the pulpit, and I stumbled a few steps forward. My visage appeared on all of the big screens, and I was glad I had just barely had a haircut, shaved, and was wearing a decent tie.

I fumbled with the microphone to try to bring it up to the level of my mouth. I was shaking like a hypothermia victim. It wouldn’t stay in place, so I finally hunched over awkwardly to speak into it. I looked out into the huge crowd, then I started speaking.

My testimony was not the most eloquent, as I was concentrating more on firmly gripping the pulpit so as to avoid violently shaking myself to the floor than I was on fishing exactly the right words from my mind. However, it went very well. I spoke slowly and clearly. I did not stutter or say "um" or any other filler word once. My testimony was simple, but I covered everything I felt I needed to. I bore my testimony of God and Jesus Christ, the restored gospel, and missionary work. I closed in the name of Jesus Christ and walked off of the stand.

Afterwards, many missionaries complimented me on my testimony. My zone was really proud to have been represented in the conference. As I was speaking, Elder Heaps kept telling the sisters next to him, "that’s my companion!" Even though I was nervous, I think it was a good experience for me to share my testimony with everyone. I’d better get used to it.

Now, for some more pictures:

Myself walking around the Provo Temple.

Elder Heaps and our district’s sisters walking in front of me.

Elder Heaps coaxed me into a snafu.

​Our room with us in it.

I’m doing fine in the MTC, but I’m looking forward to the day when I roll my cyan-tagged suitcases to the shuttle stop and leave behind these uniform buildings of dun-colored brick. I still have five more weeks to go, but at the rate time has been passing so far, they’re going to seem to be gone almost instantly. Bye!

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