Birthday box

View from the top of the mission home.

"Are you expecting a big package for Christmas?" Elder Huntsman asked me at Mission Leadership Council on Friday.

I replied that, as of yet, I had not been informed of any such holiday parcel.

"Well, Santa came early!" he exclaimed. "You just got a giant Christmas present."

I realized that he was talking about my birthday package. "That’s my birthday package," I told him. He had hidden the box away with the rest of the missionary packages delivered for Christmas. We rode the elevator down to the underground parking garage where the parcels were concealed. I was elated to find a large, roughly cubical cardboard box, nearly half a meter on a side, with my name written on it.

After the leadership council meeting ended, my companion and I immediately went on exchanges with a companionship in our zone. I bid farewell to Elder Roe, and headed off on the MRT to 新莊 [Xinzhuang] with a new missionary who had just arrived in Taiwan a few weeks prior, lugging my clothing, hygiene supplies, and unwieldy cardboard box.

When we arrived at the station, my temporary companion had no idea which exit the bikes were stationed at. We rode the escalator up to the first exit, and he examined the surroundings. "It’s not this one," he pronounced. We retreated and tried the next exit. "Not this one," he again asserted. We repeated this process several times. I finally called his companion, who directed us to the proper exit.

Upon locating our bikes, the next challenge presented itself: neither of us were familiar with the area at all, and we needed to ride to a distant appointment for dinner. The poor trainee’s companion had no idea what the address was, but gave me a landmark-based approximation. I realized that my bulky package would not fit inside of either one of our bicycle baskets, so I balanced it on the back of my bicycle with one hand and steered with the other, wobbling down the unfamiliar street.

After pedaling to and fro in the dark for almost 45 minutes, we finally arrived half an hour late at the member’s house and ate a hurried meal. We found on the streets for an hour, then prepared to ride home.

We had ridden for about fifteen minutes, me once again balancing the package with one hand, when my companion admitted he was lost. It was already 9:15 PM, and we were by an unfamiliar freeway near 三重 [Sanchong]. With our phone battery almost dead, I made a frantic call to the district leader, who gave me directions to return to the apartment. We turned around and headed down the side of the highway. The birthday box jounced and slid precariously on the back of my bike, constantly threatening to fall into the fast-moving traffic despite my clumsy attempts to stabilize it with my left hand. We rode and rode for miles through a forlorn industrial wasteland. At last, my companion recognized some of the surroundings. We staggered into the apartment, me clutching my battered birthday package.

The next day, I had to carry the brute back through the MRT during rush hour. The train car was so packed I was getting crushed and could barely breathe. There was not enough room for me and the box pressed up against my ribcage, so I hefted it up on top of my head with a grunt of exertion. The Taiwanese people standing around me gasped in surprise. To my dismay, there wasn’t enough headroom for me to stand up straight with the box on my head. All the heads in the car turned to view the curious spectacle of a tall white guy half-squatting in the middle of the car with a giant box sandwiched between the top of his head and the low ceiling. My thighs started burning, and sweat ran down my forehead, but I could neither sit down nor remove the box from my head for the density of passengers around me. I rode two stations in this curious manner before finally squeezing my way off the packed car.

On that afternoon of my birthday, I finally dragged the battered package into my own apartment and cut it open. It contained a new helmet, new shoes, a lot of junk food, and–best of all–a miniature family photo album. Despite the abuse the box had taken, its contents were all intact, even down to the individual pieces of Cap’n Crunch. I sat down during dinner, read through all of my family’s letters, and looked through the pictures. I couldn’t have been happier. It was a great birthday, despite all the confusion and exhaustion.

The notorious box, seen prior to autopsy.

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Baffling machines

In celebration of my fast-approaching 20th birthday (this Saturday), Elder Roe and I went to my favorite all-you-can-eat hot pot restaurant for lunch today.

Me.

Elder Roe.

View of one side of the restaurant.

The other side of the mirrored central pillars.

This is the same chain where an English class student took us out to eat on my 19th birthday a year ago.

It’s actually a lot cheaper than I had imagined, and it’s definitely worth it. Everything is unlimited all-you-can-eat: traditional Taiwanese vegetable dishes, dumplings, steamed bread, salad, fruit, hot dogs, chocolate fondue, cake, ice cream, various fried and grilled stuff, and sushi. You can choose your hot pot flavor–kimchi is my favorite–and mix all of your own condiments. There’s a refrigerated area from which you can take all sorts of hot pot ingredients, some meat-slicing machines, Slushee machines, and even ingredients for making your own Taiwanese shaved ice. Because I normally only eat really cheap food, I have enough extra money left ofter that I could pay for my companion and I to eat here every day for two weeks, but that would be kind of wasteful and unhealthy. One meal here can fuel several days of uninterrupted proselyting, anyway.

This week was a great week overall. We’ve started meeting with one of Dennis’s friends (Dennis is the investigator I baptized with Elder Huntsman a while ago). Her name is Nana. She is lined up to be baptized on Christmas, along with 沈弟兄 (Brother Shen), Jerry, and Andy.

Andy and Jerry are both doing well, and each has come to church enough times to be baptized. The only problem is that neither of them has a very strong desire to be baptized. We’re trying to help them develop habits of scripture study and prayer, which is about all we can do to help them in their current situation.

This week, Elder Roe and I also had the privilege of going to the Taipei temple again with two members for their first time. One of them was 楊弟兄 [Brother Yang], who Elder Huntsman and I began teaching my first week here in 土城. At the time, he didn’t have a job, never came to church, and spent all of his time practicing divination and fortune-telling in his decrepit one-room apartment. His walls were all spray-painted in slightly varying shades of vomit green ("to cover up the asbestos underneath," he explained), and innumerable old toothbrushes were arrayed on his filthy bedside table. Now, he comes to church every Sunday, and he was laughing and smiling when my companion talked to him. It’s great to see how far he’s come in this short time.

That’s about all that’s been going on this week. It’s been a pretty stressful week; Elder Roe was out of the area on exchanges for every day except one. Nevertheless, we saw a lot of progress in our area. Tomorrow, Elder Stevenson, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, will be speaking to us in Taipei, which I’m looking forward to. We’ll sing for him in the choir, as well.

That’s all for now. Have a great week!

Love,
Elder Elliott

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Best Elevators

Elder Roe and I were just sitting down for our weekly planning session when we got a text from 凃姐妹 [Sister Tu], an investigator whose baptismal service we planned for this Saturday.

"Hello, Elders,
I’ve decided not to come to church for a while. I’ve thought about this for a long time. Thank you for your care."

That was it. I called her over and over again, and she never picked up.

There have been hard days on my mission, and this was definitely among the hardest. All of the energy drained out of me. Elder Roe and I slumped silently in our seats.

I was so exhausted I could barely drag myself out the door to go on exchanges with the 新埔 elders. When I rode back the next day, Elder Roe and I were still in the doldrums. We knelt down and prayed for our area. We prayed that we could see miracles as the result of our efforts. We prayed that we could have desire to do the work.

That night, we met with a new referral named 沈弟兄 [Brother Shen]. He was contacted by missionaries in 台南 [Tainan] over three months ago, and he’d been keeping their invites to read the Book of Mormon and pray daily for the entire interim. We set a baptismal date with him, and he was extremely willing to accept the invitation. "I need a new start," he told us.

沈弟兄 works repairing elevators. I showed him our chapel’s elevator, which he examined enthusiastically. "This is a good model," he told us. I told him about how it sometimes stops far above or below the desired floor, and how it had trapped a missionary companionship for hours before. "If you ever get stuck inside, you can call me, and I’ll get you out for free," he said. I thanked him for his offer.

In front of our chapel. The weather is perfect now.

When I was on exchanges, we visited a crazed Indonesian man named Aguo who was also moderately intoxicated. After jumping around on his bed, he invited us to sit on the bed with him. We attempted to begin teaching him when my temporary companion found a bottle of liquor stowed behind the bed’s pillow. "I’ll pour that out for you," he said. Aguo adamantly refused, but my companion began walking towards the restroom with the bottle to pour it out. Before I knew it, Agua leapt up and started tussling over the half-full bottle of vodka with my companion! They tugged back and forth and rolled on the bed. "Just let go," I told him. "If you throw it out, he’ll buy another bottle anyway." He released the bottle of liquor. Aguo gave us a bunch of bananas, and we exchanged pleasantries and left.

So, even though this week was really hard, there were also some parts that made it better. I’m still disappointed about 凃姐妹, but I am feeling much more optimistic now, and I’m looking forward to next week.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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The sinew that shrank

The West Zone.

Crazy edition; I turned my head clockwise.

As Elder Roe and I closed our zone training meeting on Tuesday, I reflected on my time as a zone leader in 土城 [Tucheng]. I was a little melancholy. I knew I’d probably be leaving, and this would be the last zone meeting I would conduct.

During our training, we had everyone share spiritual turning points from our missions. I felt satisfied with the experiences I’d had over the past few months. I also felt a little bit of regret. I felt like there had been opportunities I hadn’t seized and times when I could have done better.

On the last Wednesday of every transfer cycle (about 6 weeks), the zone leaders receive a fax with the names of everyone in the zone who is moving. The movers have to pack up their stuff and report to a transfer meeting on Friday morning. I knew the fax would probably come in on Wednesday night. Sure enough, that night Elder Roe and I opened the apartment door to find a forlorn sheet of paper lying face-down in the fax tray.

I walked into our study room and started opening a cardboard box of English textbooks. Elder Roe snatched up the piece of paper and started reading down the list of names so I could hear.

"Elder King."

"Elder Greenhalgh."

"Elder Seely."

There was a long pause.

"Sister Torres-Ortiz and Sister Bane. That’s it."

That was it. I smiled to myself. I’m not moving. There’s still work for me to do here in 土城 [Tucheng].

Looking at my area from across the river.

Since then, I feel like I’ve had even more energy and enthusiasm for the work. Elder Roe and I saw some amazing results this week. Several of the less-active members we started meeting with are now completely active. One will be going to the temple in 台北 [Taipei] with us tomorrow; another in a few weeks. 楊弟兄 [Brother Yang], who could never find a job and struggled with depression, found a job passing out flyers advertising window-blinds, and he even promised us he’d stop praying to the Holy Ghost from now on.

This week, for P-day, we went to the National Palace museum again. My favorite part, as always, is the section on jade carving. This time, I took notes on the names of all the different ornamented bronze vessels used for storing food, cooking, steaming, and making sacrificial offerings. Many of the vessels displayed date from before 1000 BC. What’s fascinating is that the character inscriptions on them are still recognizable. When they’re written in a normal font, I can read them aloud and grasp their meaning. Every type of vessel has a different one-character name similar to a hieroglyph, many of which are used as roots in modern characters. For example, a 尊 [Zun] is an animal-shaped bronze receptacle used to hold alcohol in sacrificial ceremonies. The character 尊 [Zun] is also commonly used in modern Mandarin, and roughly means "respect" or "to respect."

Standing by the massive 鼎 [Ding] displayed in front of the museum.

There was also another bronze vessel I found fascinating: a large dark cylinder with ungainly arm-like protuberances, each holding a smaller cylinder of different size. Characters were inscribed around the rims of the various cylinders. This implement was used as a volume measurement device; each one of the six cylindrical openings corresponds to a different unit of volume common in ancient China, the largest being a 升 [Sheng].

So, that’s about it for this week. Also, my shoulder bag fell onto the road when I was riding really fast on the bridge between 樹林 and 土城, and half of my camera’s LCD display broke, which was a bummer. The other half still displays the image fine, though, so the device is still completely functional.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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Elder Elliot

Every time I order new nametags, they always come a month later with the same error: "Elliott" is missing the second T. At first, I tried crudely etching the second T myself, using whiteout to fill the excavated space in a lithographic fashion. The results were not as aesthetic as I had hoped. When my second batch of nametags arrived, I was disappointed to find the exact same error. I eventually stopped caring about the misspelled surname; nobody reads the English name anyway.

The mission office ended up having to call the name-tag manufacturing company and specifically instruct them on the spelling of my name. Three days ago, I finally received my first properly-spelled name-tag, after almost 16 months on my mission!

Our preparation day last week was moved to Wednesday. This afforded us a rare opportunity to visit the Taipei Astronomical Museum, which is closed on Mondays. We rode the MRT all the way across Taipei to 士林, then walked to the museum. It was sad to see how few people were there. The exhibit displays were all in Chinese, so almost all of the missionaries in our group couldn’t read them. Some were pretty laughable, like the ones about aliens that were probably written in the 1980s; others were fascinating. I finally understood the process of satellite mapping, and I enjoyed the exhibit of all different types of telescopes, cut in half so one could see the arrangement of lenses or mirrors inside.

At the end, we went up to the observatory at the top of the museum. This telescope can usually be used to view sunspots during the day, but it was impossible at the time because of the uniform cloud cover diffusing the light. My favorite part of the outing was talking with the staff about the working of the observatory telescope. It reminded me of watching documentaries about the Shoemaker-Levy comet when I was a kid.

I did a baptismal interview for one of 新埔’s investigators this week, and she was baptized on Saturday. That same day, my companion conducted the interview for another woman from 新埔 who’s getting baptized this week. I sat on the couches outside the door while my companion did the interview. I read the Chinese and English Liahonas and practiced translating between them, one of my favorite language practice activities. Afterwards, we all sat down together and ate some sushi and 皮蛋 [1000-year-old eggs] that the investigator had brought. I really like 皮蛋, but most foreigners find them revolting. The outside is like dark green egg-flavored jello; the aged yolk is viscous and a mottled greenish-black. They actually do not have a strong flavor, just eggy with a hint of sulfur.

During the second hour of our Sunday meetings, the Gospel Principles class (a class in which members and nonmembers can learn basic principles about the Church) was packed with all the people my companion and I had invited to church. When the teacher announced that the days lesson was “Chapter 39," Elder Roe and I both flipped to the corresponding page and read the dreaded title:

貞潔律法 [The Law of Chastity]

We both exchanged glances of horror. Most of the people we’d brought had never even heard of commandments before, and had just begun learning about God.

Thankfully, none of our investigators stood up and ran out of the lesson. They didn’t even have any concerns about it. So, I guess that counts as a miracle.

Friday was Jedi Council (also known as Missionary Leadership Council). It may be the last Jedi Council I’ll attend on my mission. I’ve been a zone leader for three transfers now; there’s a good chance I’ll move this week. It has been a great experience to be in this area and this zone. I’ve seen so much progress, growth, and change here.

That’s about all for this week. My camera was out of batteries, and I neglected to charge it until today, hence the lack of photographic imagery. I’ll compensate for it this week.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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