(Authors Note: For those of you wondering how I can describe these experiences which happened well over 3 months ago so accurately, I promise I am not making all of this up. I have taken [and continue to take] painstakingly detailed notes about my days which help me to paint the pictures you now read. Certain romantic liberties are always taken, however, but I consider these my journalistic and literary right. Thank you once again for reading).
As I walk home, my thoughts scatter around like the points of light that reflect off of my metal surroundings and catch my eye like harmless spears of God. I mumble to myself, my dry lips moving slowly, adding up figures, calculating departure and arrival times, my brain tightening the slack on my mental budget. "Yeah, its going to be close" I say out loud, but the whine from the multitude of passing scooters screams over my worried whisper. It is true, I have not gotten here alone, financially or otherwise. I have swallowed my pride many times in the last few years and taken support when it has been offered - much of the largess probably even forgotten by its givers. But although I now own new debts which have helped make this trip possible (and which I will NOT forget), I had hoped that this adventure would mark a turning point for me. When I left Texas less than two weeks ago, Dad had given me $100, saying "this is the last you'll ever get from me". He said it with a smile and I knew that he was less than serious, but I realized that this was an important moment in my life. This was the last time I would rely on my father, or anyone else, to help me (financially) make my way or to acquire the things I desired. I am twenty-five years old. I am smart and independent. It is time to accept adulthood. It is time to be on my own.
This is not to say that Dad or the various other people in my life wouldn't rescue me if I was drowning, and truthfully, that notion of security is one of the reasons I can take such risks where others cannot. But it feels exhilarating and terrifying to be out in the rain, out from under the umbrella. Let's hope I won't have to run for cover so soon after my long-awaited liberty.
I turn the corner at the stoplight, glancing into a small shop where a weathered-looking man is staring blindly at a small silent television, the concrete floor of his store littered with green coconuts. The sun is gaining momentum behind me as I walk toward the bridge, my flip-flops making slapping sounds on the uneven blacktop, the cars and scooters flying past close enough for me to feel the air they move and their exhaust on my ankles. As I look ahead, I notice two white men on bicycles, both in white button-down t-shirts, both with sandy brown hair. I smile instinctively, trying to contain my excitement at seeing Westerners other than my co-workers, as these encounters have not happened at all since I've been here. They cycle past me, but then quickly throw on the brakes and turn around, peddling back to where I have stopped to wait for them.
"Hello!" they both gush enthusiastically, as if they were both being reunited with a childhood friend. I return the salutation, my voice involuntarily slipping into a friendly Texas drawl. Names are exchanged but theirs are forgotten almost immediately, as if snatched away by some invisible claw in the space between their mouths and my ears. (I really have got to improve my name-remembering ability). They ask me about my "Taiwan experience", to which I reply that I am "just off the boat" (my new favorite expression) which seems to impress them in a sort of "remember when" kind of way. Shortly, I come to discover that unlike me, they are not here to educate; they are here to convert.
FACT: As of 2007, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons) had over 50,000 missionaries working around the world. However, although traditional Christianity may be able to boast higher numbers in terms of "troops on the ground", the average Mormon mission is arguably more intense than working in a Central American hospital or camp for two weeks. Most Mormon missions last two years, during which time the missionary's sole purpose to try to talk to people who would rather put their hand in a blender than discuss Joseph Smith and his crazy golden tablets.
"Now hold on, Tommy" you say, "it's not fair to jump straight into assumptions that Mormonism is some kind of cult". And normally, I would stand by this rebuke, shielding myself from Conservatives behind the first amendment freedom of religion and my belief that we, as human beings, can never fully know or understand the Truth and it is, therefore, not our place to reprimand others for their beliefs when our own could be just as flawed. However, this argument crumbles in the plastic, smiling faces of the Mormons in front of me who ooze congeniality like they eat lovable cartoon characters for breakfast. I mean, come on! NO ONE is this genuinely happy and completely agreeable! And, as hard as I fight it, I begin to feel myself being sucked into their infectiously peppy personalities, being drawn closer as if I am a recovering alcoholic that smells the sweet scent of whiskey on another's breath.
This, I firmly believe, is why Mormonism (principally a Christian denomination separated from that distinction by their belief that the Book of Mormon - based on the writings of Joseph Smith - is a Holy text) is such a successful sect; Mormons, for all their disagreements with Christian doctrine, have somehow managed to take the message of Love that Jesus Christ taught and manifest it in their daily lives. To see this Love in practice, one either has two reactions: The first (the one I now experience) being "these guys are full of shit. No one can really be this overflowing with goodwill unless they are on prescription medication", and the second one being a feeling of uncomfortable awe because of how drastically their actions oppose everything we, as members of society, have come to expect from fellow human beings. In either case, the feelings summoned by an encounter with Mormons can be defined as negative, but only because we are so unused to being exposed to such genuine affability.
On the other hand, perhaps the notion of "too good to be true" applies here, and their kindness is nothing more than a sales pitch for someone to idolize and follow blindly to a new belief system. While that is a bit overly pessimistic for my taste, I can't help but wonder what is behind the curtain. As I turn down requests to attend the Mormon service on Sunday but accept my new acquaintances' cards as consolation, I am tempted to ask them out for drinks, though I know they will decline my invitation just as I have declined theirs. What would they say about their church, their Mission, their LIVES after eight or nine rounds? Would they retain their happiness, their shiny dispositions once the alcohol forced the honesty from their bodies, or would I see the rust under their bellies and the frustration and angst in their words that I secretly wish hides inside them because it hides inside me? Do I just want to see them at my level, to destroy their attempt at Love because mine has failed so many times before? As the conversation draws to a close and I continue on my journey home, I wonder how the conversation would go between we three Believers, and what God would have to say about it.
* * * * *
That night, after recovering for a bit, I walked the 20 minutes to the RT Mart to find some dinner. I have put myself on a $100 NT ($3 US) a day food budget, which still might not be frugal enough, but I'm hoping the cut-back will allow me to make it through the next few weeks without crawling back to Dad's generosity. I am starving, so I head straight for the bakery, knowing that carbs are the cheapest and fastest way to fill one's stomach. After perusing through various muffins, breads and pastries, I finally settle on dinner: donuts. A bag of five costs $40 NT, and although they look soggy and unappealing, I know they will be filling and the sugar will give me a boost. I head to the check-out, pay in change, and eat the entire bag before I get back to my apartment. "So much for eating healthy and staying in shape over here" I think, but if there is one thing I've learned, it's that eating healthy is expensive, and I have now switched to survival mode. Let's hope I start earning some money before I break 200 pounds and find myself with extra chins. I go to sleep late, my stomach protesting loudly at the lack of nutrition that I have forced upon it.