Croatian Pirates

First, let me expatiate upon the week’s events.

I spray-painted my bike on Monday to defy theft. Here’s the after:

My color scheme was limited to 0-0-0 and 0-255-255. I wanted a nice 255-0-255 magenta, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find it at the supermarket. I’m still seeking, though; it’s never too late for another coat.

Our district hosted an English class party on Wednesday, as is the tradition at the end of a transfer. Masters of low-budget entertainment, we organized games such as: Supau bowling (Supau is a popular Taiwanese Gatorade-esque drink), horribly disfiguring face painting, Halloween bingo, Jeopardy, and–last but not least–a game we termed "Panty Hoedown." In this grueling test of physical prowess, a player dons a panty hoe over his or her head. Its end contains a soft ball or pair of dense socks. He or she then must topple progressively heavier bottles on the ground by whirling the sock around, using a gyrating motion of the head to build rotational momentum before causing the sock apparatus to forcefully contact the bottle so as to push its center of mass past the equilibrium point. The addition of a time limit creates suspense and drive.

Figure 1.1: A young player takes on the heaviest bottle in a fast-paced match of Panty Hoedown.

Figure 1.2: Elder Clark demonstrates appropriate use of the head-mounted assemblage. For exercise one day, we staged several two-person death matches. This game is excellent for building core strength and endurance.

For our spiritual thought, we four elders sang hymns in a men’s a cappela quartet. Elder Cheung sang the melody, Elder Gibson the alto, and I the tenor. Elder Clark completed the act with his deep and sonorous bass. Our performance was a hit.

I cut my own hair this week. Elder Gibson already had a razor, so I figured I would save time and money by using it to cut my own hair rather than going to a barbershop. As Elder Gibson instructed, I installed a guard–3/8" seemed about right–knelt on the floor, turned the razor on, and ran it through my hair repeatedly in different directions. As voluminous clods of hair settled on the linoleum floor around me, I was surprised by how much my hair seemed to have grown since my last haircut.

Then, I looked in the mirror:

​Ack! My hair was much too short. Also, the top is crooked and the sides are really patchy. I tried to cut around my ear and ended up taking a huge square chunk out from one of my temples.

For service on Thursday, we assembled an Ikea wardrobe for a member. Two engineers, a neuroscientist, and a physicist collaborated extensively, at last resolving the complex spatial problem presented by said item of furniture.

We’ve been eating especially healthy recently:

A healthful traditional Taiwanese meal.

In addition to the usual street food, we ate an unprecedented quantity of junk this week. (Don’t worry; in the above picture, we saved two pizzas each for dinner on Sunday.) Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonalds–we cumbered ourselves with all sorts of American fast food. Whenever we teach lessons at Maidanglao’s, which is pretty much our sole option because the chapel isn’t in our area, we have to buy something or else we’ll be kicked out. On Monday, we went to McDonald’s three different times throughout the day for lessons. Each time, we bought an ice cream cone.

We eat a lot of chao fan, shuijiao, and beef noodles. We also buy a lot of drinks at Coco’s (requesting no tea, of course) or other drink stands. Some of my favorites are watermelon milk and Coco’s passionfruit drink with seeds, coconut jellies, and black chewy gelatinous pearls.

The other day, Elder Gibson tried to bake brownies in one of our bowls with a plastic covering. We both thought it was Bakelite or another heat-proof plastic. It wasn’t.

The aftermath.

After removal of the bowl.

The work is going well, although finding investigators remains our biggest challenge. Right now, we’re teaching four people who are likely to be baptized in the near future: Sister Wang, a local college student whose baptism is scheduled for next Saturday; Sister Zhu, a mom who we’ve been meeting with a lot recently; and Sister Zhu’s two sons, 16 and 12 years old.

Our normal modus operandi is to spend almost all of our time outside of lessons street contacting, occasionally spending an hour to make telephone calls to potential investigators we’ve already contacted or received. Street contacting gets very frustrating. People tell us they’re willing to meet again, but then won’t arrange a time and either refuse to give us their phone number or make one up. One woman told me her phone number was 0909999333.

White people are quite rare, but the other night, as we walked through a tiny maze of alleys, we saw a Croatian pirate at a tiny Buddhist temple. He was speaking in English with a pirate accent.

Taiwanese people like shirts with English on them. They don’t care as much about what they actually say.

Thus concludes my weekly email. Bye!

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An Ephah

“Ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of a homer shall yield an ephah.”

That’s what the work is like in Zhonghe.

There are an extraordinary number of people here. Missionary work feels like holding a sieve in a raging river and occasionally catching a leaf, pebble, or other particulate matter. Based on my experience so far, there’s probably 100 ppm of prepared people here.

As a result of the abundance of people here, we can afford to be direct with everyone. When we talk with people while proselyting, we touch our nametags and tell them that our purpose is to prepare people to follow Christ and accept baptism. If they aren’t willing to do so, they’ll let us know immediately, and we’ll move on to someone else. If they are, we’ll teach them and prepare them for baptism.

Our time is spent:

  • Talking to people on the street;
  • Handing out free English class pamphlets in busy areas (think hot-dog salesman);
  • Contacting people on scooters while waiting for stoplights;
  • Teaching English classes (there are three levels; we teach the advanced class); and
  • Teaching investigators at Maidanglao.

The Golden Arches of Ophir

Unsure whether this counts as a selfie.

Teaching is interesting. My Chinese has improved a lot, and I can carry my part of a conversation well. The only obstacle remains understanding other people. I just use the old “nod and smile” strategy.

This week, I had a few unique teaching experiences. During a lesson with one of our investigators named Lin DX, I seemed to recall that he had already set a baptismal date. I whispered to Elder Gibson: “What’s the date?” He replied, “November 22.” So, I told Lin DX: “Well, your baptismal date is set for November 22. What can we do to help you prepare for this date?”

Elder Gibson suddenly interrupted me.

It turns out that Lin DX hadn’t even committed to baptism yet. He was quite confused. Thankfully, Elder Gibson was able to backtrack. He extended the baptismal commitment, and Lin DX accepted. He then followed to commit him to November 22.

Another investigator we taught was so interested in talking about the history of specific Chinese characters that we could barely fit in any of our own words at all. She started talking about how Lehi’s vision in the Book of Mormon of the fall of the great and spacious building was a prophecy of 9-11. Elder Gibson tried to commit her to baptism–six times–but she wouldn’t give a straight answer. Finally, I decided to share a scripture with her. I located the verse in my Chinese Book of Mormon and was about to give it to her to read. Just as I extended it to her, Elder Gibson nudged me and told me that she was blind.

On the whole, though, the work is going well. We work very hard every day. Two of our investigators are ready to accept baptism soon. I love the people here and the place.

My tongban on the street.

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Our area’s gritty and dystopian scenery.

A very upscale neighborhood we found in the middle of nowhere.

Typical scene in our apartment. Elders Gibson, Clark, and Cheung.

Typical night traffic.

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My companion in some traditional garb that our roommates, Elders Clark and Cheung, found while doing service at a recycling plant.

The Words of Them Which Have Slumbered

Other cool experiences this week:

My bike arrived! I fixed the horrible derailleur adjustment, so it shifts smoothly now. It’s brand new and pretty. Unfortunately, it can’t stay that way or it will be stolen shortly, so I’m going to paint it today to make it as ugly as possible. Here’s the before:

“After” to be sent next week.

I saw my first gigantic spider while walking down an indoor stairwell. It was about as big as the palm of my hand, and it ran along the walls around us so fast my eyes could barely track its motion. Needless to say, it caused me to hasten my pace significantly.

During one of our lessons at MDL’s, a guy sitting at the table behind us suddenly started screaming as if in agony and hitting himself. A MDL’s employee stood by to prevent him from harming anyone, but was powerless to remove him from the restaurant. Ten minutes later, he suddenly leapt to his feet and half-fell down the stairs, howling and screaming.

I’ve eaten some weird food, including duck blood bars (decent) and pig foot (not so much). Here’s the pig feet:

I found them pretty gross. They tasted like sticks of butter covered in thick and hairy skin and filled with tendons and pig toe bones. My companion thought they were good, though, so I’ll probably get used to them. On the whole, I really like the Taiwanese food I’ve eaten.

Until next week: adieu!

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Sweet Vaseline

At the breakfast store where I eat every morning, the sandwich toast is slathered with a translucent, viscous substance that resembles Vaseline and is sweet to the taste. I don’t know what it is, and neither does my companion or any of my roommates.

Now, for the important information: I began my first transfer in Taiwan!

My companion in our area.

Part I: The Meeting

Last District 25A picture (minus the Australians) before separating.

Tongbantuan at the Grand Hotel.

Our Tuesday transfer meeting was a suspenseful gathering, consisting of the following:

Each new missionary in turn would be called to the front of the room. He or she would furnish a brief introduction in Chinese, which President Day would then supplement in English. His or her likeness would be displayed on a PowerPoint slide projected at the front of the room.

Then, his or her companion and area would be revealed, the companion’s photograph appearing suddenly next to that of the new missionary.

I stood up and gave my introduction. President Day said some things that I don’t remember. I puffed out my cheeks in anticipation. I hoped for a good companion and a good area, preferably somewhere in the city. The image appeared. “Elder Gibson, Zhonghe.”

I ran up to my companion and hugged him. He told me about our area. My wishes were both fulfilled!

Part II: The Companion

Elder Gibson with my luggage in the subway.

I couldn’t have asked for a better companion. Elder Gibson is amazing. He started studying neuroscience at BYU when he was 16. Despite having no prior Chinese experience, he read through the entire Book of Mormon in Chinese after five months in the field. Since then, he’s also read through the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and Jesus the Christ. During meetings, he serves as a translator for the native speakers.

In addition to being brilliant and someone who I can talk about chemistry with, Elder Gibson is also diligent, obedient, and kind. Working with him has been a great experience.

At first, I told Elder Gibson to only speak Chinese with me. This unfortunately proved too difficult during companion study, so we’ve since made some exceptions. My Chinese has improved greatly since I arrived here, although listening to natives is still definitely a challenge. I’m not used to the Taiwanese accent, and people speak quickly and indistinctly and use expressions I’ve never heard before.

Elder Gibson is very old, in mission terms. This is his 16th transfer. After he leaves, I will be responsible for staying in Zhonghe and transferring my knowledge of the area to my next companion.

Part III: The Area

Zhonghe.

I wanted a dense city, and I got one; in fact, Zhonghe and the surrounding city is one of the most densely-populated regions in the entire world. Our area, like most of Taiwan I’ve seen, is an incongruous juxtaposition of old and modern elements. The deep streets cut like canyons through the tall tile-faced apartment and office buildings, their faces cluttered with swamp coolers and hanging laundry. On either side of the streets, many brightly-lit signs and flashing lights advertise restaurants and stores. People throng along the sidewalks. Much of our area resembles a very large and low-budget Times Square.

The roads and traffic arrangements here are unique. A huge elevated freeway slices through the center of our area. The roads are often crowded, mostly with motor scooters; cars are relatively few, especially compared to in America. Motor scooters weave wildly between buses and cars, grouping and reforming like schools of fish.

Riding a bike in the streets here is quite terrifying at first. Traffic laws are merely a suggestion, including speed limits and red lights. Three lanes of scooter traffic will often cram into one lane. Everyone speeds through the gaps between cars and buses as they drive. Add hundreds of flashing lights and people everywhere, and you have an almost unparalleled level of sensory overload. Also, I haven’t received my bike yet, so I’ve been using an old one with a non-functional derailleur. My chain kept falling off in the middle of traffic and I had to awkwardly waddle to the side of the street as traffic rushed around me on both sides.

Typical narrow alley.

The food situation is awesome. Food is cheap and plentiful; almost every meter of streetfront is dedicated to selling food to passersby. We eat on the street for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I really like the Taiwanese food, although a lot seems at least slightly carcinogenic. We eat lots of noodles and rice, and aforementioned sweet Vaseline sandwiches for breakfast. McDonald’s here is the classiest restaurant around, where all the dressed-up businessmen go to sip their coffee and read the newspaper. The street food is good, with a few exceptions: try as I might, I don’t like the stinky tofu at all. To me, it smells like the animal feces at the zoo, and it tastes like it smells.

Elder Gibson standing.

Climate: pretty bearable. It rains a lot, but the temperature this time of year is ideal. Our apartment has an effective swamp cooler, so we’re never too hot indoors. After almost a week of rainy days, I’m already used to being wet all the time.

Also, the dump trucks here play a melody like the ice cream trucks in America. When people hear the melody, they grab their bags of garbage, run to the street, and throw them on the moving truck.

Another unrelated note: the bathroom here has no specific shower area. The whole room just has a drain in the center and a detachable shower head on one wall. Just another one of the unusual differences I’ve noticed between here and America.

Part IV: The Work

The mob, seeking some street food for dinner.

The most important part. It’s hard. Our area was split this transfer, so we lost nine of our progressing investigators. The area we’re left with has very few members and investigators. We have devoted almost all of our proselyting time to finding: contacting motorcyclists at stoplights (the stoplights here have a countdown that conveniently tells us how much time we have to teach brief summaries of restored truth), handing pamphlets to passersby and teaching them when possible, advertising and teaching English class, talking to everyone we see, and asking members for referrals.

Another Taiwanese street vista.
Teaching is difficult for me mostly because I have no idea what our investigators are saying most of the time. I’m sure it will get better with time, though. I’m working my way through the language study plan as quickly and efficiently as I can. In fact, Elder Gibson says I might beat his record.

This is an amazing place. Every morning, we go running at a local track, sandwiched between looming brick apartment buildings. There are always hundreds of ancient Taiwanese grandmothers out doing Tai Chi. They listen to music from sketchy rigs constructed of car stereos and speakers powered by giant leaky lead acid batteries. Today, in addition to their traditional Chinese playlist, they also played Gangnam Style. Some of them were using swords as well; I tried to give them as wide of a berth as possible.

It’s a pleasure to be doing missionary work here in Zhonghe. Every time I eat a sweet Vaseline sandwich, get a whiff of the unmistakable scent of stinky tofu, or have a near miss with a reckless biker, I remember how great it is to be here in Taiwan. Until next week, bye!

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In Taiwan

Not much time for explaining. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

District 25A, (mostly) reunited at last in the Tokyo Narita airport! (Sisters Fisher and Strong arrived last-second.)

Another tongbantuan selfie!

The Taiwan airport! The most spotless airport I’ve ever seen. It was fantastic.

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Upon obtaining my luggage.

​All 31 of us crammed ourselves (and our overstuffed suitcases) aboard this party bus.

​We drove from the Taoyuan airport to the mission home.

​Out on the balcony.

View from my bunk bed. So weird to see this place in real life instead of street view.

Another window view. Taiwan is fantastic.

Typical Taipei street scene. The walking guys on the crosswalks are animated.

​Dinner in the mission home: authentic Taiwanese spaghetti.

Now, for some text.

On Wednesday, President Blatter called our companionship and informed me that my visa had arrived and that I would be leaving on Friday.

I hurriedly threw my belongings into my suitcases and bade this excellent quad-panionship farewell.

A senior couple drove Sister Sorenson and me to SeaTac. We flew for ten hours from SeaTac to Tokyo Narita. At Tokyo, we were surprised and overjoyed to meet all the rest of our Taipei-going MTC friends! Aboard the same gigantic Airbus, we flew to Taiwan. I was in the middle of the center row, but I strained to see out of one of the side windows as we approached our destination. Through the tiny, fogged-up aperture, I could see the clouds all around us glowing dimly orange from the city lights below. Occasionally, as our plane dropped through the turbulent clouds, I caught glimpses of the huge cities passing beneath us, shimmering in the darkness.

When we finally touched down in Taiwan, we walked into the Taoyuan airport. It was amazing how clean it was. The floors were polished so as to resemble mirrors. We walked along a very long, bright corridor with a low ceiling to the immigration portal, where all of us passed through without incident.

Upon claiming our luggage, we met President Day, who led us out the door to a garish rental bus. We and our suitcases barely fit, but with the help of some handy spatial puzzle-solving we managed to cram all of us and our luggage inside.

We rode through Taiwan in the night as President Day gave us an introduction to the mission, warned us not to drink the tap water, and passed around the microphone for each of us to introduce ourselves. I was looking out the window the whole time. It was amazing. We drove on a huge multi-level highway, and grimy factories, industrial complexes, and apartment buildings swept past, dimly lit by the orange skyglow.

When we finally reached the mission home, we unloaded our bags–and sweated. I sweat and sweat and sweat in my black suit. We had to take out two days’ worth of supplies and repack our suitcases in a sweltering parking garage. The sweat soaked through my shirt and ran down my forehead.

Exhausted, we dragged our supplies up to a tiny residence room on the fourth floor, where eight of us reside. It was about 12:30 AM. I looked out of the window of my bunk bed, and the temple was right there! I fell asleep almost instantly, despite the many flashing lights outside of my window.

Yesterday morning, we had an hour before personal study, so a few of the more adventurous of us went exploring. We walked through two markets, which were awesome. They were crowded with hundreds of people buying and selling goods. Many shops had huge slabs of raw meat hanging from hooks.

This is the most awesome place ever. It’s great to be here. Bye!

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​Me.

Park.

Street.

Other guys.

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Balcony.

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