On a rainy morning in March 1988, I stood on the covered walkway outside the Taichung, Taiwan mission offices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, awaiting the arrival of my trainer, Elder Tim Bowman*. The fellow “greenies” I’d arrived in Taiwan with had departed on early morning trains for towns in the south. I had been assigned to begin my labors in the hamlet of Qingshui, about forty minutes outside of Taichung. Pacing about in freshly polished shoes and a new suit, I was impatient to begin the first real adventure of my life, and the veteran missionary who was to shepherd me into it was more than an hour late.
Three days earlier, I’d left the confines of the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, following eight weeks of training in Mandarin Chinese, cultural sensitivity, and proselytizing techniques. My MTC experience had been a rocky one. It wasn’t the 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. training regimen that I’d had trouble with. The worst part of the MTC experience was the social dynamic. Instead of joining a group of sympathetic comrades, working harmoniously “on behalf of the Lord,” I’d found myself ducking for cover in a conflict-ridden milieu populated by deeply insecure boys, the “elders” who comprise the rank and file of the Mormon missionary corps. Many Mormon boys go on missions principally to avoid embarrassing the family—“Did you hear? Heber Benson isn’t going on a mission! Oh my heck!” The glory surrounding the departing hero quickly fades when he’s faced with learning one of the world’s most challenging languages in the stifling atmosphere of the MTC. Some adapt; many don’t. Leaving the MTC for Taiwan was, for me, an escape from an environment where the inmates were running the asylum.
When Elder Bowman finally arrived, I got the first of many shocks I’d experience as a missionary in Taiwan. He looked as if he’d been through several rainstorms in a single morning. Once-black shoes and a once-white shirt were now dirty shades of gray, and he was mostly soaked. As it turned out, Bowman was as competent a missionary as I’d meet in Taiwan.
The first few weeks of missionary life were a haze of exhaustion. The official workday went from 9:30AM to 9:30 PM, with short breaks for lunch and dinner. We had few appointments, so we spent most of these hours “first contacting,” trying to find people to teach the missionary lessons to. We canvassed the train stations and parks during the daytime, knocking on apartment building doors at night. The schedule was grueling, but the greatest strain was mental. The extreme foreignness of Taiwan was a great shock to me. As a Westerner in Taiwan, you’re alien enough. When your purpose in life is to bring American Mormonism to Taiwanese Taoists, you’re like an elephant walking among a herd of antelope.
In two months, we found two people willing to listen to our message: Boris, a bookish, single English teacher who insisted that we teach him in English and Deng, a ghostly pale high school graduate who was preparing to take the Joint College Entrance Exam for the second time. We attended church on Sunday in a rented building, together with twenty active members, a dozen of whom were teenaged girls.
I made some linguistic strides in those first months, but my biggest breakthrough was of a cultural nature. I’d been born and raised in the American West, and had only left it once, briefly. The main message of the hours of cultural training I’d received at the MTC seemed to be the vague admonition to “love the people.” After a few weeks of living in Taiwan, I realized that I was horribly unprepared for most of the realities of living in a land that was so completely different from home.
The breakthrough came one cold morning at 7am, while I was standing on our second-story balcony, trying to study my lessons. From my overhead perch, I looked down at the street scene below, with its zipping scooters and street hawkers getting set up for the day. The street was lined with an open sewer, petrified waste and trash coating the edges. Across the street a billboard showed a topless woman, an advertisement for a local porn show. In my emotionally exhausted state, a familiar thought lumbered across my brain—“This sure isn’t America.” This time, though, the thought was followed by another—“Why should it be America?” Sometimes it’s a simple thought that provides the needed catharsis. In the two years that followed, I held onto a number of misconceptions about Taiwan, but at least I was untroubled by cultural differences.
I stayed in Qingshui for another month after Bowman left, companion to a chronic masturbator with a well-honed sense of humor.
In early June, I moved to coastal Taidong, where I was paired for a month with a violent-tempered farmer, and for two months with a frustrated, lazy poet. By the end of the summer, I had learned Mandarin well enough to be a competent missionary. I was promoted to trainer, and moved to Yuanlin, Zhanghua County, to begin working with greenies.
I look back on my experience as a Mormon missionary with great nostalgia. Sure, I spent twelve hours a day working to convert people who would probably leave the Church once their relatives found out they’d joined, and the insecurity and boorishness of my companions often left me frustrated and disillusioned. I left the Church eight years after returning from my mission, but the things I first learned as a missionary—how to speak Mandarin competently, how to process what’s going on around me in a very foreign culture, how to adapt to Taiwan’s strange ways, have remained very much a part of me. Of all the ways to start out in Taiwan, you could do much worse than to begin as a Mormon missionary.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.