Parthian shot

I stepped out the door of the office, and it felt like I’d stepped back into Utah. The blustery wind was frigid in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. There were little flecks blowing down from the dark sky. One of them landed on Elder Xiao’s jacket, and I saw that it was solid.

It was snow.

That night, several centimeters of fluffy white precipitation landed in Taipei, an unheard-of event in this semi-tropical climate. Our Da’an district escaped the wintry blast, so I didn’t see any flakes besides the few that landed on my companion, but there was a dusting of snow left on the buildings and roads of some other districts.

This week was also momentous for another reason: Elder Xiao moved away, and Elder Ure and I handled the first new-style transfer of the Taipei mission. Basically, a transfer cycle in the mission is six weeks. Every six weeks, a large number of missionaries will move to new areas with new companions. With rare exceptions, all missionaries stay in areas for whole numbers of transfers (e.g. 1, 2, 3…). This means that there’s a lot of work for us to do every six weeks, and it comes all at once.

In the past, missionaries would all come to a central location (the mission office) before being assigned their new area and companion. They would then travel to the new area. Now, to save time and help missionaries stay in their areas for longer, we started having people move directly to their area. There were a lot of logistical problems we had to solve in implementing this system the first time.

Coordinating the movements of missionaries from the Taipei main station.

Basically, this is how we worked it out:

Once we received President Jergensen’s instruction as to who would be moving where, we created a data sheet containing the information for all moving missionaries. For every one of the 30+ missionaries who were moving, we typed a text document listing the new companion, new area, new phone number, new address, and directions on how to get there. We had to coordinate all the train timing, from the west coast of Taiwan to the south-easternmost areas in Taidong, so that everyone would have a companion accompanying them except for when they were on some form of public transportation. This was insanely complex, because every missionary’s arrival and departure time can create dependencies for ten or more other missionaries. A new companion must arrive before the old one can depart, or another companionship can provide temporary accompaniment.

Because the tickets for trains were all already booked out by the time President Jergensen’s decisions came out, I had to work by different means. I communicated with one of our connections who works at a train station, who helped us book tickets from the inside. I then texted all the booking information to individual companionships, who payed for and withdrew tickets using local convenience-store machines.

After typing all of these files, we exported them to PDFs and uploaded them to a cloud storage site which an online-shopping machine in any 7-11 convenience store can access. I organized the resulting pin numbers, and we texted each pin number to the corresponding companionship. They went to the nearest 7-11, printed the file off, and began to move according to the instructions thereon.

Because there’s only one phone per companionship, the missionaries would have no easy way to communicate with us between companions, so the timing had to be just right. One train was late by an hour and a half, but thankfully the end of its dependency chain was a member whose time was flexible. We stationed ourselves at the Taipei Main station, where we directed missionary traffic. At a preset time, I handed tickets for the east coast off to missionaries coming up from the west coast. As the day went on, companionships checked in one by one, until everyone was accounted for. Not one person was lost. It was a miracle.

Then came the bicycles and luggage.

Loading bikes onto one of the shipping company trucks.

Elder Ure was responsible for bikes. In every instruction file, we included a label that missionaries could stick on their bikes, with the next location and phone number written on it. They dropped off their bikes at a pre-arranged dropoff point in their neighborhood, and a shipping company came to transport the bicycles.

As for the luggage, Elder Xiao prepared a database of all the agencies of a container-shipping company, matching each missionary’s area with the closest location. Each instruction file provided directions for contacting the local shipping branch.

At the same time, we had to provide meals and housing for the new missionaries coming in for the airport. Because of the lack of advance time, I woke up really early to call some restaurants and order food so they could prepare it in time for breakfast.

After a long day, everyone finally reached their new companion and area, including Elder Xiao, who left for Zhubei. Elder Ure and I were exhausted. We finished updating all of the mission’s phone-number and location information. We finally walked home, and grabbed our favorite 焿麵 and 魯肉飯 for dinner past 9:00 PM.

This week, I also signed my first contract solo, without Elder Xiao to accompany me. It went really smoothly, surprisingly! The landlord was a bit unpredictable, and she suddenly had a problem with our payment scenario after we’d already signed the contract and shaken hands. After a bunch of haggling, we went back, changed the relevant sections of the contract, and re-stamped it.

I used a bunch of regex to format chapter headings in the text of the Old Testament. It was pretty fun, especially when I used 150 capturing groups to replace all of the Arabic-numeral chapter headings with Chinese characters.

This morning, we drove the last two remaining sisters from our MTC district to the airport in 桃園 [Taoyuan].

It was a pretty awesome week. I’m going to miss Elder Xiao a lot, but it’s also cool to start fulfilling these responsibilities on my own.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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Dissect that for us

A fungal infection turned my toenail yellow, and Elder Xiao was suffering gastrointestinal distress, so we ended up going to the doctor on Wednesday. Thankfully, Elder Xiao’s new convert, Sister Chen, works at the Adventist Hospital, so we basically had a free line skip pass and got through the registration super fast. They had an automatic height-measuring device which bops the patient on the head, amusing me and Elder Ure to no end.

My unsightly toenail discoloration turned out to be athlete’s foot. The doctor prescribed me a bottle of topical antibiotic to apply every day for three months. Elder Xiao was vaguely diagnosed with irritable bowel due to intestinal inflammation. The doctor gave him a bunch of probiotics and told him to eat more white bread and rice, and to avoid high-fiber or oily foods. Despite our pleas, he then proceeded to eat some greasy dumplings and pizza in the same day!

A few big highlights of this week: three of my investigators got baptized! 嚴姐妹 [Sister Yan] and 呂弟兄 [Brother Lu], who I had been teaching since I arrived in the office, were baptized at the same baptismal service on Sunday morning. 何姐妹 [Sister He], who I started teaching in 土城 [Tucheng], was baptized as well, although I wasn’t present at the baptismal service.

Sister Yan, far left, with Brother Lu, center.

These are some awesome people. Sister Yan, previously a member of a different Christian church, is a master of scriptural knowledge. She’s read the Book of Mormon several times, with meticulous notes, and her command of the Old and New Testaments is unparalleled. When we invited her to read Alma 32, she read it 12 times in a day. She was a hard investigator to teach, and yelled at us a lot, but now I’m glad we didn’t stop teaching her. She was overjoyed to be baptized.

Sister He came to a Thanksgiving activity in Tucheng after the Banqiao sisters invited her on the subway. She is very refined and sociable, and instantly made friends with almost every member of the ward. She progressed quickly, and she even invited her whole family to her baptism. She’ll be an outstanding member, and I can’t wait to see her again.

Brother Lu and I install a new mudguard on my Frankenstein-esque bike, which is patched and cobbled together from pieces of other bikes I’ve scavenged throughout my mission. We swapped out the wheels today. Not one part remains from my original bike.

Brother Lu and I bonded really well since we both like bikes, machinery, and programming. He studies engineering in college and works part-time at a Giant store repairing bikes. He volunteered to help us fix our bikes today, so we spent a few hours of P-day fixing all of our bent derailleurs, swapping tires, lubricating chains, and scavenging useful parts from the old bikes piled in the chapel parking garage.

My Thursday focus was fixing the line breaks in the Chinese Old Testament text I’ve been working with. I spent a while correcting the unfavorable results of a bug that caused every instance of the Chinese word for "cry" (in a battle-type scenario, such as when Gideon and his men scatter the Midianites) to be replaced by a garbled string of ASCII characters. It’s surprising how much battle-crying goes on in the Old Testament.

We knocked doors on this street in the rain.

Elder Xiao using persuasive tactics at the intercom.

​On Friday, President Jergensen asked us to translate a bunch of mission president training videos into Chinese, add subtitles, and burn them to DVDs. This is pretty time-consuming work. We listened to every phrase of the ten minutes of film several dozen times over, adjusting the timing of the subtitles.

My favorite line? "Dissect that for us" (a request to explain a principle more clearly).

Elder Oaks dissects it for us.

As you can see, the subtitles look pretty good, right?

Aside from that, we just took a look at a potential apartment. The ceiling ended up being a bit too low, and negotiating the place required a beginner’s knowledge of caving practice.

Elders Ure and Xiao bear-crawled to an overhanging travertine precipice.

That’s it for this week.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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MSG soup

This apartment had a really cool bronze relief on the wall, but someone ruined it by using spraypaint to color all the water blue.

One of the highlights of this week was opening my email and seeing these pictures from 廖弟兄 [Brother Liao], who I found and taught in Tucheng:


廖弟兄 was baptized this week!


Elder Roe and Bellingham with 廖弟兄.
Brother Liao was probably my favorite investigator of all time to teach. I started a conversation with him as he stood looking at some real estate ads outside of our apartment. He was willing to accept our teaching, and he was always stable and dependable. Although he is old and retired long ago, he is exceptionally sharp and learns quickly. He speaks English, and he worked as a computing professor in the 1970s, so we can talk some mad DOS together. It doesn’t matter to me that I wasn’t able to attend his baptism; I’m just overjoyed that he was baptized.

Aside from that, I ran a bunch of tests on my automated reporting system this week. The first trial had a ton of bugs that resulted from people messing with the templates, so I stayed up with the assistants on Sunday night until they had finished reporting, all the while tweaking the code until it finally worked and was well-proofed against human error. The second trial, on Thursday, went without a hitch, except that one of the three trial zones didn’t send in any of their numbers.

Electronic payments for the month went through yesterday. Predictably, a host of landlords called us complaining that they didn’t get the right amount of money. One of them was a mistake that we made; the rest were them not understanding the tax math.

We even took a side trip to a real-estate office in 新店 (Xindian) so I could try to explain our calculations to an agent. They were calculating the tax based on a percentage of the landlord’s net income rather than on a percentage of the apartment’s total rent, and wondered why there was a difference between the two numbers. I tried every way I could to demonstrate the inequivalency of these two expressions, and finally gave up when I realized they didn’t understand fractions.

Then, we went to the new 新店 apartment we rented, and checked out the awesome fridge. It has a panel on the front that can swing down with a single press, allowing easy access to the chilled beverages inside without the heavy labor of swinging the door open.

On the way home after proselyting on Friday, we stopped at a 7-11 to electronically confirm some train tickets using their IBON system. There were a bunch of white guys inside the store speaking English. They were rude and crass and bought a lot of beer. I was ashamed to be around them.

I ordered a bunch of new carbon monoxide detectors. Much to my joy and astonishment, they came with free Happy Meal-style key chains, featuring a 可愛 fire-extinguisher mascot. I speedily equipped my cell phone with the handy cord.

That’s about all that happened this week.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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Paying the rent

I finished submitting the rent payments for all 79 of our mission’s apartments. All of the tax calculations, negotiation with landlords, and contract updates were complete, and well before Friday when the electronic funds would be transferred. I was relieved to finally submit the forms to the financial headquarters.

Two minutes later, the finance department emailed me back: "The Taiwan property tax changed this year. Now, the 2% only applies if the apartment’s rent is over $20,000." Argh! All of the values were wrong because the base dependency had changed!

I ran to President Jergensen and told him, "Don’t hit the ‘approve’ button." I re-calculated the values, printed out a spreadsheet, and went through all of the electronic transfer payments, changing the sums. I painstakingly double-checked, triple-checked, and clicked "submit."

After a brief delay, the website threw out a glob of Javascript table errors. All 79 payments failed.

I tried again, but with the same results.

The church tech support office had no idea what to do. I experimented, and found that the payments would go through if I submitted them one at a time. So, I sat at the computer and clicked all the little buttons one at a time, waiting for the page to display an animation and reload at a snail’s pace. At last, after an eternity of clicking and waiting, all 79 payments were successfully submitted.

Aside from dealing with this inconvenience, Elder Xiao and I also signed a few apartment contracts this week. One of the difficulties we face with renting apartments is landlord tax-dodging. The Church pays an honest tax on all properties it rents. Very few tenants do this. The problem this creates for landlords is that it makes it clear that the apartment is not, in fact, a personal residence, and obligates them to pay an honest income tax at the higher "non-personal property" rate. So, few landlords are willing to rent when they find out we’re going to pay taxes on the apartments. That’s my boring legal interjection for the week.

We ate all-you-can-eat pizza at Pizza Hut in Songshan!

This week, we fixed a toilet leak by tightening a pipe seal. We carried a gigantic wooden bed assemblage from Taoyuan to Taipei in the van. I worked on finding the Chinese and English for every proper noun in the Old Testament, a formidable task that will help me format the three-column Chinese/Pinyin/English language study edition of the Old Testament. I made a bunch of new C++ data structures to untangle some spaghetti code in the reporting system I’m building.

There was a lot of mist in Taoyuan!

Standing by the road where we looked at an apartment this morning.

That’s about it for this week. It was a splendid week!

Love,
Elder Elliott

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The seafood pizza

Elder Xiao, Elder Ure, and I.

This week, I:

  • Bought a massive order of Costco pizza for the trainer-trainee follow-up meeting
  • Lugged a rusty steel bunk bed, two mattresses, and two bed-springs up and down four flights of stairs, all for naught
  • Hauled a van-load of trash from an old apartment
  • Made down payments on two new apartments
  • RegExxed over a thousand pages of document text
  • Troubleshot a finicky GSM modem
  • Used screen recorders and a lot of ffmpeg to grab videos for missionary training.

It was a busy week, and Elder Xiao and I were running around like beheaded fowl, as usual. We get up in the morning, exercise, study for three hours, dash over to the office at 11:00, and start on our to-do-lists. I usually subsist on the stuff people leave in the office fridge; the past month, I spent no more than $10 USD on food.

We did a lot this week, but little of it was very interesting to the outside world. I received two awesome packages: my family’s Christmas gifts, and a GSM modem I ordered from mainland China.

I went to Costco in Taiwan for the first time! It was pretty much identical to an American Costco, but the pizza flavors were a little different. Elder Xiao wanted to order seafood pizzas for all of the missionaries ("it’s my favorite flavor") but we at last settled for five Hawaiian, five regular, and four seafood. We tramped back out to the car, our arms laden with stacks of greasy boxes.

At the meeting, nobody ate the seafood pizzas. We stowed one in the apartment fridge, one in the office fridge, and gave two away.

After the office closes for the day, we spend the night proselyting in our area. It’s the only mini-area in the mission, consisting of two major roads, a single park, and a highway overpass. Nevertheless, we saw some cool success this week. We’ve been very direct with inviting people to church, and a few said they’d come!

That’s about all for this week. It was a good week, but there weren’t many noteworthy events to report on.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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