Decree of the watchers

Last Saturday, President Jergensen, the twins Brecken and Daxton, Elder Smith, and I ventured to the Eye of Horus. It’s an ancient-Egyptian-themed escape room, a multi-floor puzzle that you have to use problem-solving to climb through and escape from. There is a 90-minute time limit.

We began in a closed room where we were trapped following the collapse of an ancient pyramid’s entrance. After running around aimlessly for a few minutes, we started sifting through the sand on the floor and pulling up the floorboards. We found a wooden key and a scarab-shaped attachment, which we could use together to open the door and enter the rest of the puzzle.

We had a great time blundering through the escape room together. All of the hints and information were written in Chinese, which was fine for me and Elder Smith but made things slightly more difficult for President Jergensen and the twins. We deciphered sequences of Egyptian characters representing numeric quantities, climbed up and down rope ladders, and arranged canopic jars to open hidden doors. President Jergensen’s favorite part was the ball pit; he swam around and tossed balls at the twins as we struggled to unlock the next phase.

We completed the game with only five minutes to spare. The staff took a picture of us in front of a "winners" sign, and we cleaned the sand off of our feet and walked back to the MRT station together.

Our Egyptian adventures aside, Elder Smith and I had kind of a boring week. We drove to 新竹 [Xinzhu] to rent a (different) new apartment for the sisters, and the landlord actually showed up this time! I also signed for the new 瀘州 [Luzhou] apartment after the old one became a showcase for an abundance of fungal specimens. This is the 15th apartment I’ve rented, which has to be some kind of record.

We went on our usual Costco pizza run for the trainer-trainee meeting. I went by my usual ratio of 1/4 pizza per person, which in the past was more than enough. As the missionaries devoured the pizza, however, I found the slices disappearing at a disconcerting rate. In the end, our rations were sufficient, but barely so. Only later did I realize my error: I had neglected to take gender into account. I had estimated the 1/4 ratio at meetings comprised mostly of sisters, hence the vast discrepancy when the majority of constituents were male. I’ve come up with a gender-adjusted ratio of 1/3 pizza per elder and 1/4 per sister, which should work better next time.

Elder Smith’s gnarly ingrown toenail is growing back. This, along with the infection in my right big toenail, has caused us to develop a mutual hatred of toenails. These infuriating hunks of keratin are nothing but trouble, and we both desire to have our toenails permanently removed upon returning to the U.S.

This week, though boring, was pretty awesome. Elder Smith and I received a great referral the other day, 黃姐妹 [Sister Huang], who has a baptismal date set for 5/28. She’ll be coming to church this Sunday, along with 徐弟兄 [Brother Xu], our other baptismal-date investigator. We’re really excited to see her progression.

Elder Elliott


Is not Calno as Carchemish?

Phase 4!

The 新竹 [Xinzhu] sisters’ apartment was infested with mold, so I’ve been looking for a replacement. On Thursday, I found a possibility online, called the landlord, and informed the sisters so they could go over and look at the apartment.

That night, they called me and told me they liked the apartment and wanted to move. I talked to the landlord, an elderly woman who, despite her dislike of missionaries, told me they could move in immediately. I set up a contract signing with her for Friday morning in 新竹 [Xinzhu].

Elder Smith and I started driving at dawn to make it from Taipei to Xinzhu in time for the 10:00 appointment. We finally arrived after about an hour and a half on the highway, and pulled into a parking lot near the new apartment.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I heard an ominous hissing noise. I stooped down to the front left tire. Sure enough, a the head of a huge nail protruded from the rapidly-deflating tire! Within a few minutes, the tire would have no air at all. I jumped back in the car, and we peeled out of the lot. I rolled down the window and shouted to some people standing by the road, "Where’s the nearest car repair shop?"

Within a minute, we pulled into a greasy shack by the side of the road. We looked around and yelled, and a woman finally emerged from the darkness in back of the shop. She told us she would call Boss to fix the tire.

Before long, a man puttered over on an old scooter, spat two pieces of betel nut into the gutter, and started working on the car. He jacked it up, pulled the tire off, removed the nail, and stuffed a piece of rubber into the hole. We payed him, parked the car again, and started looking for the apartment. I called the landlord’s phone repeatedly, but it was turned off, and there was no answer.

We finally found the apartment, but nobody was there. We rang the doorbell several times. It was already almost 11:00. I called the mission office and had them look up her home phone. Elder Smith called, and the woman finally picked up.

"Didn’t we set up for 10:00?" Elder Smith asked.
"I decided I don’t want to rent to you," she replied.

My blood boiled! We had driven all the way from Taipei to Xinzhu, punctured our tire, and searched high and low for the apartment, all for nothing. Elder Smith hung up the phone. We drove back to Taipei.

The day got better after that, though, because our first five copies of Phase 4 were printed by the time we returned! I submitted the document on Monday. Now, we just have to proofread and resubmit our changes.

Phase 4!

​Also, I called an exterminator to kill the cockroaches in our apartment. They sprayed insecticide all over our apartment while we were out. I hope it worked, because I still saw a ton of cockroaches running around in my laundry when we got back that night. Perhaps the movement I saw was merely the last throes preceding rigor mortis.

For P-day, we went to the area around Taipei 101. We watched some street performers rolling around inside giant hoops, and we bought some Eversmile pants. These pants are waterproof and stretchy, and feel like exercise pants while maintaining the appearance of dress pants.

The assistants said there were two stores in the area that would let us sit in their expensive massage chairs, so we looked around the department stores and at last found the place. The attendants did indeed permit us to try the massage chairs, but they did so grudgingly, and meted us both a hearty portion of hairy eyeball as soon as they saw our nametags. They were obviously very familiar with missionaries.

That’s about all for this week.

Elder Elliott


Break the cauldrons and sink the boats

"I think that’s a great idea," President Jergensen told us. "Talk to the MTC teachers and see what they think."

We were trying to figure out how to better integrate our mission’s language study program with the missionary training center’s. I proposed calling the MTC and talking to language teachers who had previously served in Taiwan and gone through the phases of language study here.

Sister Chen fed us lunch.

President Jergensen gave us permission to stay up late in the office to catch the beginning of the MTC’s working hours in the Utah morning. At 10:30 PM, I called the MTC front desk.

"Hello, this is Elder Elliott from the Taiwan Taipei mission," I began. "We’re working on a new language program, and we’re trying to integrate our language system better with the MTC’s. I was wondering…" I stated our purpose and requested passage. The operator accepted, and transferred us to the teaching department.

"Hello, this is Elder Elliott from the Taiwan Taipei mission. We’re working on a new…" I introduced us to the teaching department secretary. She transferred us to the Chinese teaching department.

"Hello, this is Elder Elliott from the Taiwan Taipei mission…" I said. The Chinese teaching department secretary provided the numbers of several teachers. We dialed the Utah cell phone numbers. Nobody answered any of them.

"Hello, this is Elder Elliott…" I left a voicemail message on each phone.

Elder Smith and I debated what to do next. We still hadn’t talked to an actual person, and it was past 11:00 PM. My eyelids were drooping with fatigue.

We decided to call the MTC back and talk to someone in charge of the mandarin department.

"Hello, this is Elder Elliott from the Taiwan Taipei mission…" I said to the front operator. I painstakingly repeated the query three times, once to each level of administration. The Chinese teaching department secretary provided the Idaho cell phone number of the boss.

We called. There was no answer. I repeated our tired mantra to the answering machine.

Elder Smith and I both agreed that we needed to call again, but neither of us wanted to make the humiliating call again. At last, Elder Smith picked up the phone and dialed the number.

"Hello, this is Elder Garcia from the Argentina Buenos Aires mission," he said.

Just kidding, he said the same thing as before.

This time, though, we finally talked to a real person. He left our number for the guy in charge, who called us back the next day. We emailed back and forth, and he told us about the new language learning program the MTC is developing. We’re going to see if we can help them develop the Mandarin learning program, and integrate their system into our mission’s.

Aside from that, most of our time this week was spent getting ready for transfers and compiling the examples for our 5,000 character dictionary. I re-did my Excel macros to allow free manipulation of columns by eliminating hard-coded column values in the table-reading code. I helped the Taizhong mission set up our reporting system using Teamviewer. We drove to Taoyuan to sign the contract for the Beutler’s apartment. I bought airplane tickets for President and Sister Jergensen to fly down to Hualian and back up.

That’s about it for this week!

Elder Elliott


The kneecap

I looked far and wide for an accurate list of the 5,000 most commonly-used traditional Chinese characters for the new final phase of the language study program. I looked online, but the few lists I found contained many errors and drew from sources that didn’t represent a broad enough sample of Chinese literature. I asked 邱姐妹 [Sister Qiu] if Taiwanese students ever used a dictionary ordered by usage frequency, but she didn’t know of one.

Two days later, we went with Sister Qiu to the family history center so she could learn how to research her ancestors and prepare to go to the temple. To our surprise, she brought us each a giant green 5,000-character dictionary, which she had bought for us! This dictionary is super-useful for looking up lesser-known characters because it includes several example words and sentences for each character as well as a (relatively) standardized Taiwan pronunciation. I was very thankful to find such a useful resource.

I realized several days ago that my right big toenail, which fell off about a month ago due to trauma, seemed to be growing back straight into the flesh of the nail bed. I related this alarming discovery to Elder Smith, who then regaled me with the story of his $5 anesthetic-free ingrown toenail surgery, which he underwent at the hands of a pliers-wielding surgeon in rural Miaoli. It was painful, he said, but worked better than the expensive and botched operation he had earlier at a high-class hospital in Taipei.

Elder Smith and I went to the hospital, and I steeled myself for the pain of surgical prying and incisions. When the doctor inspected my toe, however, he told me the nail wasn’t actually growing under the flesh; the toe was simply inflamed, and had bulged up at the leading boundary of the growing nail. He gave me a bunch of antibiotics and told me to come back if it didn’t get better.

In other news, a new senior couple, the Beutlers, entered our mission the other day. Elder Smith and I helped them set up their smartphones, and I selected several apartments for them to visit and decide between. They’re going to 花蓮 [Hualian], a relatively remote and very scenic location on the east coast. Elder Beutler served here in Taiwan many years ago as a young elder. He was amazed at how much Taiwan has changed since then, when it was mostly rice paddies and one-story brick houses. It was great to see their enthusiasm and excitement for missionary work.

Obscure Chinese character of the week:
斌 (bīn)

The left side of the character is 文, meaning literature, culture, or writing. The right side is 武, meaning military. The meaning of this character is "excelling in both academic and military pursuits." It is rarely used except in masculine names.

Have a great week!

Elder Elliott


Rodent make mincemeat of your old man’s snooty pastime

One of our biggest projects this week was revamping the mission’s language learning program.

The language program, as it has existed in the past, is broken down into phases of study. In Phase 1, missionaries learn essential vocab, phrases, and grammar for missionary work. In Phase 2, they learn common street vocabulary and useful words for general communication. In Phase 3, they learn how to read and write about 3,000 characters from the Book of Mormon. Each phase has a test which the missionary must pass to advance.

When we were selecting proofreaders for the Old Testament, Elder Smith and I realized that only six people in the mission, ourselves included, had passed Phase 3. The writing portion of the exam was too intimidating and difficult for most missionaries. Furthermore, many missionaries idled many months on Phase 1 without advancing.

First, we printed Phase 1 flashcards. This should make passing off Phase 1 more approachable since it adds a clear method of memorization and simplifies the phase materials, which were traditionally very unfathomable (large excerpts from Preach my Gospel, with little direction on what to actually memorize).

Next, we made Phase 3 easier. Many of the characters in the Book of Mormon are not very useful for the average missionary to write, unless he or she must frequently use formal written Chinese to describe vast scenes of ancient warfare. So, we replaced the random character-writing section of the Phase 3 test with a prompt-writing portion, where the missionary will read useful missionary written material (e.g. a thank-you note to a member) in English and write it in Chinese.

Of course, we didn’t want to destroy the feeling of high-tier accomplishment, and we wanted to give missionaries who pass off Phase 3 something to keep working on. So, we devised an intimidating final boss for the phase system: 造詣深厚 ["profound attainments"], a rigorous examination to challenge the most skilled Chinese learner. This test material includes a character-writing section, which draws from 5,000 most common Chinese characters (including characters with meanings such as "name of a river in western Hunan that flows into Dongting lake" and "to die in prison from cold and hunger"). Following the character portion of the test is an idioms examination, which draws from 65 of the most common (and actually useful) Chinese idioms. This portion of the test provides sentences in Chinese with the idioms replaced with blanks, and the examinee must match the sentences with their corresponding idioms. The last of the three sections is a reading comprehension test, where missionaries must read a randomly-selected article from the Liahona Church magazine in Chinese and then write short answers to comprehension questions in Chinese characters.

Also, the pass threshold is 80%. It’s a really, really challenging test. Probably no more than three to five missionaries in the mission will have achieved this level at any one point in time.

To provide greater incentive, I thought of a motivating reward system. Missionaries always wear reflective vests when riding their bikes after dark. These are usually yellow. I looked online and found a supplier of orange, green, blue, and red reflective vests. I figured that these vests could become a kind of rank symbol for Chinese achievement. Here’s the system Elder Smith and I came up with:

When a missionary comes to Taiwan, he or she will begin with the standard yellow belt.
Upon passing Phase 1, he or she will have the privilege of wearing the orange belt.
Upon passing Phase 2, he or she will have the privilege of wearing the green belt.
Upon passing Phase 3, he or she will have the privilege of wearing the blue belt.
Upon passing 造詣深厚, he or she will have the rare honor of wearing the red belt.

I showed off the new reflective belt colors at the Mission Leadership Council meeting. I can already tell people are motivated out of their minds by the pretty colors.

For P-day last week, Elder Smith and I went on a pilgrimage via subway to our homeland: 中和 [Zhonghe]. When he was born, Elder Smith took my place in 中和 as Elder Montierth’s companion, so we share a common land of ancestry.

In 中和, we basically just walked around, hopped through all of the office supply stores, and checked out the wares. I bought a whole bunch of sick door signs and stickers with Chinese instructions on them (and some English; one cryptically reads "Do not in without guest").

We even saw some Mormons when we were there. We told them to go back to Utah.

Elder Elliott