Rookie Mormon

Mission Tales, Part 1: Learning the Language, Americans

Hey, I Speak This

By the time I hit the MTC, I had two years of high school Japanese, during which had I entered a regional Japanese-language contest. I took second place at the contest and felt pretty great about my Japanese skills. I knew I wasn't fluent, but I thought I might have an easier time at the MTC (Missionary Training Center) than the average missionary.

That "high school advantage" in terms of vocabulary and grammar lasted almost two weeks. It blew my mind. I had taken two YEARS of this stuff, and we got past week two and I was treading water just like everybody else. Still, I knew I had specific gifts for learning languages at that point, and a ton of excitement and interest in the new culture I was about to enter. Those things really help.

I do count language proficiency as one of my gifts--be it computer programming languages, design languages, or human languages. And I'm thankful for that gift. Still, from my second week in the MTC until about 16 months into my mission, I had a fairly low confidence in my ability to communicate with Japanese people. It was higher-than-average confidence, I think, so I imagine there were lots of missionaries who probably cried and prayed for help in improving their Japanese.

While recognizing and being thankful for my language gift, I felt like the relatively baroque phrases and lines of thought within my head would come out like these nasty bricks of awkward syntax and failed inflection.

People from all over the world have apparently visited the MTC to try to figure out how Mormon missionaries can become so fluent in their languages in just a couple years. I don't really think the key is in the MTC, although we did get some really helpful mnemonic devices and study strategies there. In fact, even the MTC teachers came back from these meetings with outsiders, shaking their heads and telling us, "these people have no concept of the spirit of God being available to you guys. They don't get how that could help you learn a language and speak to people."

We were in total agreement (with as much naiveté as you like), responding with statements like, "yeah...wow, that would suck, not to realize you can just learn a language by the spirit!" only to get hit by this TRUCK of a language the minute we hit the streets in our first mission area. It was exhausting. I counted it up and I had close to 100--not even kidding here--close to ONE HUNDRED meal appointments where I didn't understand 90% of what was being said. For example, we'd bike for 45 minutes to one retired woman's home because her daughter wanted us to teach her mother about the gospel, and she looked SO HAPPY to see us, and made us some of the best food we had ever tasted. Then we would start yawning halfway through her fourteenth introductory paragraph--she went on longer than usual, I think, because somebody had to do the talking, and it definitely wasn't going to be us! It wasn't that we were trying to be rude--we simply didn't have the words.

After all the Japanese study, we'd run into the occasional American or Canadian or other commonwealth member. It was awkward for me every single time. I always felt excited to form a bond with this person who shared a similar cultural background, but at the same time a missionary or just someone who lives in Japan is accustomed to being seen as very unique, like this special snowflake person who was in this foreign country. Usually, Japanese people were interested to know what we were doing there. So I'd kind of push my own cultural kin away at the same time. Plus, most of the people we met seemed to be in the middle of cementing their opinions about various things. They were in Japan to think about stuff. And our own strong feelings about one subject in particular (our religion) didn't make it super easy to build on common beliefs.

The American Upstairs

After about four months of living in this one apartment building together, Elder Karray and I finally realized we had never introduced ourselves to our neighbors. Nobody was home on the first floor except for our direct neighbor, and they had established already that they weren't interested, I think. It was the typical two-inch door opening and a quick rejection. Then upstairs, the second door we knocked opened and BOOM American guy. For us, this was pretty unique and awesome at that point. For him--and this still makes me chuckle--it was like, "oh, they have these Mormon guys here in Japan, too, DANGIT." He looked completely underwhelmed, and yet part of me wanted to cry out, "my brother!" Even though I believed everyone in Japan and indeed the world was my brother, this was an even closer brother, like maybe the brother you used to wrestle with because you were so close in age or something.

The guy invited us in just out of numb shock, and we sat down on his floor. "No couch, huh?" I thought. I think I decided that, in his place, even if I had to spend my last cent on it, I would definitely have a couch. Our apartment had this "couch" that was old and uncomfortable and only seated one person at a time. But we didn't have much time to think about or plan out our furniture. Very occasionally I would shiver with joy to think about all the time I would have after my mission, to think about furniture, books, normal stuff like that. As a full-time missionary, there was about zero time for that stuff unless you decided to shift your priorities around.

Anyway, the guy talked about his hometown in New York or wherever (I honestly don't remember) and then gave us his honest "I really am not into religion" thing and we were out of there. But there was still this awkward obligation between us--you could feel it--that if we really needed anything, he was there. And if he needed anything, we'd be happy to reciprocate. Bye now!

Philip Seymour Hoffman

There was one foreigner who I remember thinking was really sketchy. Sketchy not because he dressed weird or looked at us funny. Sketchy because he fit the stereotype of the American womanizer. He looked a lot like a really tall Philip Seymour Hoffman and he started dating this woman who directed our service projects at the city's International Center. She was smart and pretty. We really, REALLY liked her a lot. This was kind of mutual, too. Elder Franklin, my companion, told me that she occasionally tried flirting with Elder Simmons, my predecessor. And handsome football star guy. My nickname was "33"--because some Japanese guy thought I looked like I was that old--so there was no way she was doing that to me. But we all felt like she respected us, was thankful for our help, and generally sent us good vibes.

Anyway, Philip Seymour Hoffman had arrived on the scene, visiting her place of work to "study," or something, and began schmoozing with her all of the time. Pretty soon it became clear that the two of them had started a relationship. And it was even MORE clear that she really, really felt awkward at work now. He would go off and read, and she was definitely cool with that, but pretty soon he'd be up and chatting with her. She'd start turning red and would talk to him without looking up from her work, that sort of thing.

So one day about a month later when we were out on our bikes, looking for some new apartments to knock on, we came across this quiet little park bench that was somehow visible from every window within 50 yards. And these two, boyfriend and girlfriend, were sitting there on the bench.

And they were making out.

I don't know how much you know about Japan, but even as Americans who had been in-country for maybe 10 months, we knew this was wrong. And I don't mean "wrong to Mormons," but just "wrong in Japan, with Japanese people, period." We had been around people non-stop for that long, so it wasn't like this was book knowledge, either. Not that there aren't some free-thinking Japanese people in Japan who couldn't give a care, but I'll bet if we had taken a neighborhood poll right there around the bench, 99% of the neighborhood would have agreed. Of COURSE you don't just sit there and make out in public. Are you nuts?

So within about 25 microseconds, without even exchanging any words, the four of us had determined that 1) this Hoffman guy had just graduated to "total perv" (which still makes me laugh to think that we took it so seriously) and 2) we really, really did not like him. My new companion, Elder Rodriguez, was so upset that he just glared at this guy as he made eye contact. I was pretty embarrassed about Rodriguez's behavior since it wasn't really our place to be letting loose with our corny adolescent emotion on this guy we didn't even know, but Rodriguez really liked this lady as a friend and he felt he had to vent somehow.

It's still a little awkward to recall this story, because we were really in Japan to help people (through service, free English courses, etc.) and teach the gospel to people who were interested, but you just can't discount the role of hormones in any 20-year-old's existence. So we had our college kid moments.

Not all Mormons are the same, and they don't need to be

I realize that I may sound like I'm some kind of clued-in official representative of the LDS church here, and I'm really not, so I wanted to clarify my background a bit. I'm just a guy who was born into the church, ended up liking it, and made his own decisions to remain an active part of it after doing his best to compare alternative paths--paths I discovered both through serious study and serious slacking. On top of that, I still have plenty of ego left over and sometimes that makes for an awkward combination, like when people are expecting me to behave like some sort of goody two-shoes, or as we'd say in the church, "Peter Priesthood." (The female version being "Molly Mormon.") I have many stories in my wake of people who told me they were shocked to find I was not what they expected when they heard I was LDS. Each one of those becomes another trophy for my mental trophy case, but that's just my personality--I try not to fit the mold because I can't stand that kind of behavior. Who would want to let some organization--no matter how holy--do all their thinking for them?

Being in Japan just kind of amplified this outlier condition. I was different; anybody could see that. I was tall, caucasian, wore suits and ties, had this old bike helmet on my head and rode around on a trashed mountain bike after my nice new one got stolen. And my Japanese pronunciation, by around month 18 of my mission, was so good it was making people do these double-takes all the time. I would talk to people in their intercoms and they'd come to the door and see me and reflexively yell or scream or almost have a heart attack. But what was I supposed to do, keep the heavy American accent and just telegraph everything? I spoke good Japanese so I used it. Sometimes I wonder if I sounded too syrupy and unintentionally perfect, and turned people off as a result.

Sometimes Elder Franklin would get this huge grin on his face and tell me over and over, "when you talked back to that one guy, it made my ENTIRE day." I would feel awful about talking back to people (which happened only very rarely, believe me) but this poor kid Elder Franklin had been on a mission for six months, spoke some of the worst Japanese I had ever heard, had people shouting him down like 24/7, and he was ready for some serious payback. But mostly he just put his headphones on when we got home and doodled in his sketchbook for a while, trying to numb the pain before hitting the sack. So he loved it when that happened, when I almost lost control for a few seconds and let my Japanese skills work somebody over for treating us like garbage or sarcastically imitating Elder Franklin's Japanese or physically shoving me out of their doorway or telling us they hated caucasians. It all happened, and some days were worse than others.

Just who am I here to serve?

"I hope you can learn to love everyone you meet." Man, those were some words to hear. Our mission president was usually the one to deliver them, and you knew he had learned from his own mission experiences long ago. We tried really hard to reset ourselves every day, find a new neighborhood or a new person to visit and just be as cool as possible to them. We baked food, cleaned houses, read to the blind, just about every nice thing we could do. And eventually, I started just loving people almost all the time. But it didn't come to me until I started learning to love my companions.

You did what???

On one dark, quiet evening after our daily dose of rainfall, Elder Quince finally opened up to me.

"I stole dog food," he said. "For me and my sister to eat. My parents weren't really there for us."

Elder Quince was easily the most difficult companion I had on my mission. My mission president even warned me about him. He told me that this elder wanted to go home, and just needed some love. For the first three days during which Elder Quince was my companion, I felt completely nauseated. I literally felt like I had to throw up, all day long, so stressful was this new companion.

First of all Elder Quince had had enough of his mission. He REALLY wanted to go home but agreed to keep trying things out. I think the mission president wanted to show Elder Quince's chuch leaders back home that he at least tried and that their efforts to work with him weren't in vain. But Elder Quince should never have been let on a mission, as we will soon see.

Elder Quince rode at least 100 feet ahead of me on his bike from day one. This was about the worst feeling ever. He was pointedly showing me that he had no interest in me and thought he should be in charge. And it was completely ridiculous--I would have to stop at each turn and shout at him to turn around and come back so we could get to our destination. He would smile like, "I knew that" and lead the way again. After a half day of this I felt exhausted.

I learned later that Elder Quince used this tactic to send letters that he wasn't supposed to be sending. He had a semi-girlfriend somewhere in our mission (completely against the rules and actually pretty dumb-slash-desperate), and he would turn a corner ahead of me and pop his envelope into a mailbox when he was out of sight.

Next, Elder Quince had a habit of taking off his tie and just sitting down, looking completely wiped out. That really burned me up because he wasn't really doing any exhausting work. Later I learned that his mental condition was just exhausting him.

Finally, Elder Quince would just flat out tell you what you would do or not do. He wanted things done his way.

Elder Quince had daily phone calls with our mission president. This is like, a huge deal. The mission president is a very busy man. If he is talking to you daily, you are being triaged, you are in the emergency room, on the table (so to speak), riddled with bullet holes.

One day Elder Quince handed the phone to me and said, "he wants to talk to you." I hadn't been listening in, because Elder Q. valued his privacy and used a different room for his phone calls, so this was a surprise. I picked up the phone. After some pleasantries, the mission president gave me some instructions.

"I need you to take Elder Quince to an appointment with a doctor. It's out of your area, but it'll be fine, just go as a translator and help him out."

The doctor was a psychiatrist. Wow, neat, I had never met a Japanese psychiatrist before. AND I got to take a nice long train ride out of our area! That was a big deal. Not many missionaries got to do that.

Somehow Elder Quince and I bonded a bit during the train ride. Now that we were out of our mission-assigned area, it seemed like we were on more relatable terms, on neutral ground. Elder Quince would tell jokes and I'd laugh, or I'd point something out and share with him some information about Japan, and he'd listen intently. When we arrived at the psychiatrist's office, I wondered how the doctor would feel about Elder Quince. Was this missionary a serious case, or was he just a big faker?

The psychiatrist was not amused. He looked even less amused to have me there as a translator. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality. After asking a series of questions, he turned to me with a brief summary of his thoughts.

"This guy is in a state of serious mental anxiety and depression, OK? And here he is, in a foreign country, with a foreign culture, trying to learn to speak fluently in a foreign language, just to get through a single day in a normal fashion. Just to be accepted."

Oh. Right. Gulp. (But it wasn't my fault, I swear, doc!)

"This is not OK. I don't see how he can heal in these circumstances. He should not be here." Bang. That was it.

We left the office, walked to the train station, and suddenly all of Elder Quince's cards were on the table. My eyes started to sting a bit as I thought about how much effort he put into making himself look like he was in control. And how hard he was trying to fit in. No wonder he would occasionally just collapse into a chair from exhaustion.

Elder Quince had been abused as a child. Basically treated like an animal, at times. As I said, he had to steal dog food at some point to feed himself and his sister. As he shared all these things with me, I wondered why he had to prove anything to anyone. He deserved to be vacationing at a five-star resort, all expenses paid. Instead, a bunch of well-meaning people had brought him closer to God and encouraged him to become a full-time missionary.

Elder Quince should not have been a missionary. He needed time to heal, and instead he was given more wounds to cope with.

The mission president told me that someday this would be a helpful experience for me. "You've learned that not everybody should serve a mission," he said.

What I really learned was that love, the true nurturing kind of love, sometimes requires creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that some people are afraid to offer. A group of people pushed Elder Quince on a mission, but I'll bet there were some in that group who had serious doubts. They knew he needed more time, maybe. Or they knew that the mission was not meant as a kind of medicinal remedy to heal Elder Quince's ills.

I saw Elder Quince get in a fight with another missionary once, before we went to the psychiatrist together. The other missionary accused Elder Quince of stealing his pocketknife. To be honest, I thought he probably did steal it. Elder Quince wasn't really in control of himself, and stealing a pocketknife would have been small potatoes for him. The two challenged each other until they were in a heap, wrestling on our apartment floor. Elder Quince put up a fight for about five seconds, then he flopped his head back and shouted loudly, letting his body go limp. Then he began to cry, loudly, in front of all of us. I was stunned--I instantly felt ashamed that I didn't stand up for Elder Quince. The other two elders in the apartment, including Elder Quince's accuser, looked embarrassed. They looked like they wanted to apologize. They figured they were up against a real tough guy, but in reality they were up against the tough shell of a ruined guy. It was absolutely pitiful, and we could all feel it. Deep, confounding pity for Elder Quince as he lay on the floor, sobbing.

I loved Elder Quince. I still love him deeply, even though I haven't talked to him since I was transfered from that area. I gave him a goodbye hug at the train station and headed to my next area with a heavy heart for Elder Quince. Deep in my heart, I hope he went back to the states. I hope he found a nice job doing something he was good at, settled down, and figured out how to live a comfortable life. Elder Quince could have broken every mission rule in existence, and it would only have convinced me further that he deserves all those good things, and more.

Partying with the Outcasts

When I arrived at my first apartment in my first area, I was completely stunned to see a gigantic stereo system on my study desk. In fact, it spanned two study desks--mine and my companion's. The speakers were huge, and seemed to have more cones than you would ever need to express most sounds in existence. This...this was something weird. Where was I? On a mission for the Mormon church, or in some foreign CIA office disguised as a humble missionary apartment? With white guys in ties who put on an innocent face in public and then went home and jammed to their tunes all night?

As it turned out, the stereo was garbage. Literal garbage.

My new companion, Elder Lamont, proudly explained that some local Brazilians had retrieved it from the community garbage pile, just for us. "Elders, you need a stereo," they said. And boom, the next day a stereo appeared at the door.

The Brazilians and Peruvians and Guatemalans were always going through the garbage. Japan had the best trash you would ever find. People threw away new stuff all the time. The word for "new stuff," "shinpin," was so often on the lips of one of our Brazilian friends that I can still hear his voice almost cracking with high-pitched excitement. "Elders! Kore! Mite! SHINPIN!!!!" ("Elders! This! Look! BRAND NEW!") His mouth would hang open in shock as he examined his new tennis racket, or soccer shoes, or dress watch. All there for the taking.

The Japanese members did not approve. In fact, it was pretty clear to us that they really hated seeing fellow Mormons go scavenging in their neighbors' trash. I could empathize--it would irritate me, too, to see someone making in effect a judgment call about my stupidity or lack of consideration in letting perfectly good things go off to some garbage dump as long as there were poor people in the world.

But to some missionaries, this feeling was like a sweet elixir. A magical potion for the ego.

See, Japanese church members had a bit of a hangup, in some ways. (They were a lot like American church members, actually.) They weren't terribly awesome at sharing the message of the gospel with their friends. It was awkward, and seemed a bit like anti-social behavior in a country where everybody just tried to harmonize all the time. And they definitely did not enjoy watching an American missionary massacre their great language as he tried to teach their friends the gospel. Consequently, there wasn't a lot of that kind of teaching to be done.

The South American members, on the other hand, were INCREDIBLE missionaries. They would tirelessly send us referrals. They would let us teach anybody they knew! Even Japanese people! Even their die-hard Japanese Buddhist bosses from work--from these jobs that they depended on! It was incredible. They had no fear, it seemed to us.

So when we saw Japanese people get upset at Brazilians, or Peruvians, or whatever, there was a little bit of joy in that for us. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it, because of course we were there to serve the Japanese people (or just everyone in general) and love them, and yet there were so many little opportunities to get annoyed with people. We rejoiced in seeing these "outcast" South Americans, who didn't really seem to be accepted by Japanese, absolutely kick butt at making friends and introducing people to Jesus Christ. These people were absolutely amazing to us.

Some of the missionaries would just come out and say it. Elder Franklin used to walk right up to the Japanese church leaders and say things like, "why don't Japanese people like doing missionary work?" or "why are Japanese people so afraid to talk to other people about their beliefs?" Perfectly reasonable questions in SOME ways, but he was completely goading them. He wanted them to feel his frustration at having a practically empty teaching pool for Japanese people, and an overflowing pool of Brazilians to teach. I remember watching our Japanese bishop grit his teeth a bit and then give a soft response.

It is really hard to be a missionary and not fall into a kind of "car salesman" mindset. You are trying to get people to "buy" the gospel, or get baptized, and whatever stands in your way is just meaningless garbage. Sometimes you wanted to erupt in frustration at the bishop who wouldn't let you baptize someone who was clearly not mentally competent, but who you had convinced yourself was a child of God nonetheless. There were many stories of American missionaries who became secretly upset with Japanese church members and then channeled that upset feeling into a deep, loving relationship with the Brazilian members.

To be honest, I found that pretty sad. I loved the Japanese people enough that I could feel their frustration. They wanted to be as susccessful as anybody else at sharing their life philosophy with others. But their society was so refined, so nuanced, that it wasn't an easy fit.

Whenever the Brazilians or Peruvians would invite us to a party, we had a blast. But even though they were so good to us, I felt an earnest confusion inside. I knew I had a mission to fulfil among the Japanese people. I loved them. But it was difficult to resign myself to the fact that it was just easier to baptize (and party with) Brazilians.