Mormon Diaries/ PART TWO
How I Knew The Lone Star State Was Right For Me
At first when I received the announcement of where I was called by God to serve my mission I was devastated. Houston, Texas seemed so underwhelming. Out of all the glorious places in the world God had chosen to send me to the red republican state of Texas, the place George W Bush called home – though he wouldn’t become president until several years after my mission.
I thought God must have got it wrong or was maybe even joking. I was such a good kid. I had volunteered at old folks homes and worked at camps for kids with disabilities. I thought God owed me! I deserved to go somewhere poorer and really help people. Not somewhere where one of their main attractions is a shopping mall with an ice-skating rink in the middle of it!
Anyway, first I had to spend two months at the MTC – an abbreviation for the Missionary Training Center in Provo Utah. It’s where you learn your new language, and they mould you, and then send you out to what they call the “field” – the place you’ve been sent on your mission. Every morning at the MTC you wake up at 6:30, have lights out at 10:30 and you abide by the strict missionary rules.
MTC training also involves religious lectures and yet more missionaries telling tails of their past adventures in the mission field. Male Missionaries are called Elders – all males of the church must go on a mission at the age of 19. Female missionaries are called Sisters – they can choose to go on a mission if they want, but can only do so at the age of 21 – by which time the church hopes that most of them will be engaged to be married. Missions are primarily for men.
At the MTC one night there was an ex-sister missionary telling us the tales of her mission. She was beautiful, with that young, clean sparkly Mormon look. The glow of innocence and love. She was wearing a modest but fashionable dress and her hair was straight out of a shampoo commercial: dark like rich chocolate, thick and long, reaching right down her back to her bottom.
The sister was telling us about how she had received her mission call and was sent to Fiji. She said when she received the mission call she had no idea where Fiji was (it’s between New Zealand and Hawaii in the South Pacific).
She told us that she had been sent from the clean and sparkling white Utah straight to a poor Fijian village. Though the villagers had next to nothing – no money, no shoes and hardly any food – they welcomed her as if she were family. She would describe the flies circling the table as they ate and how she would play with the children and the village chickens. On day three of her mission, her head started to feel funny, a little itchy. Her missionary companion quickly gave her the diagnosis. Head lice.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she told the rest of her story. She loved her hair. It was her prize possession. People always commented on it and often described her as that girl with the gorgeous hair. In the village in Fiji, they didn’t have any head lice shampoo. So she had to cut it all off.
For her that seemed like agony. But then she realized it was one of God’s challenges. She was like Job from the Bible, except instead of being smitten with boils, all she would have to give up was her beloved hair, for the love of God and the humble Fijian people whom she served. She said as her head was getting shaved and tears streamed down her face she knew without a shadow of doubt that God had meant for her to go to Fiji to have this experience. To learn to give of herself fully and understand the true power of sacrifice. She believed that God had told her through this experience that Fiji was the place she was supposed to be on her mission.
I sat at the edge of my seat devouring every part of her story. I had been doubting my mission call since I received it. I was still sure God had gotten it wrong or somehow mixed it up. I prayed and prayed each night asking God to please give me a sign. Please let me know the Lone Star state is where you want me to be.
Then I knew… I thought to myself….. If I get lice, I will know God wants me to be in Texas.
Now I on the other hand I never had hair from a shampoo advert. Infacet you would probably equivalate my hair more like a Mr Clean commercial. My hair started thinning at an early age but I still had enough to get a little lice.
At the MTC we slept in dorms with dozens of other missionaries. I was sure I could get lice – then I would know that God had answered my prayers. I would lie on other missionaries’ beds and put my head on their pillows. But no sign of lice. I remember leaving the MTC on my flight from Provo to Texas and sitting in my airplane seat rubbing my head on the high seat headrest thinking that this would surely get me lice. But still no luck.
I arrived in Texas and as they would say in the south it was hotter’n blue blazes. The humidity was crazy. It was like having a wet blanket thrown over you. As we had been given Vietnamese names in the MTC, my first mission companion in the field name was Ahn Ting. His real name was Elder Balduzzi; he was a New Yorker and had a Bronx accent. He was very tightly wound and clean as a whistle. His shoes were so shiny you could see your face in them, and his Vietnamese was amazing.
Ahn Ting was ready to teach me how to be a missionary. One of the first places he took me to was a prospective convert, Chu Phuc’s house. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. It was in this crazy run-down apartment block and when I say run down I mean it. Some apartments where abandoned with no windows or doors. There was graffiti on the outside everywhere but the craziest part was that the building was tilted. I guess the foundation of the building was sinking.
There were only two floors and I remember walking up the rusty metal slanted staircase. And knocking on Chu Phuc’s door. He called out to see who it was and my companion answered. Chu Phuc rushed to the door and let us in, then busied himself to make us comfortable, ordering his children to fetch us water and sitting us down in his crazy 1990s black leather couch that swallowed you up as you sat in it. His apartment was as modest as you can get. I think the only thing he owned was the huge used leather couch, a TV and a calendar with a picture of a famous Vietnamese pop star named Linda Chang Di. He and his eight children lived in the one-bedroom tilted apartment. There was no kitchen table, just newspaper on the floor with bowls on it where they ate.
Chu Phuc was so excited to meet me. He was shaking my hand and talking Vietnamese at me a mile a minute. I could not understand a word he was saying. Then my missionary companion Anh Ting leaned over to translate. He said “Chu Phuc says please don’t lean back on the sofa because all of his children have lice and you have very beautiful blue eyes”.
Hallelujah, it was like my prayers had been answered. I didn’t get lice but I was definitely close to doing so. It was here at this moment I saw my privilege, my whiteness and my wealth, even though I didn’t understand that at the time. It was here my prayers came true and it was here Houston Texas that I labored in the field for the next two years of my life.
Now we are going to fast forward two years! I successfully served my 24-month mission. On the last day of your mission they have a leaving ceremony and I remember the mission president giving a farewell speech to all young missionaries that were leaving to go back to their homes and he said: “Not a day will go by in your life where you don’t think about your mission.”
I was a pretty unsuccessful missionary. I was terrible at converting people to the church. My Vietnamese speaking was the pits and let’s be honest no sane person wants to convert to such a crazy religion as Mormonism. I did however definitely return home with a billion and one life experiences and stories. But most of all I remember the plane ride home from Texas. As I sunk back in my delta airline seat and my heart hung heavy. I was now 21 years old. I had just given two formative years of my life to the church.