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.
My companion in our area.
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.
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.
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!