Thursday, December 27, 2012

Week 26: in which English class is even more awesome than usual, and in which a wonderous gift is given

MERRY CHRISTMAS! What a wonderful week (or rather, week and a half, since this email is several days late) this has been. I'll admit, ever since deciding to serve a mission, I was terrified of Christmas time. Basically, the Cutler-Hooper-Sumrak Christmas celebrations are hands-down my most special, tradition-filled, sacred memories. The Christmas-Eve Nativity, pajamas, family dinner to celebrate Rowan's birthday... and then Christmas Day in Smithfield, with the traditional Christmas socks, singing, eating, crying, yelling, wrestling, stories of years past... Hong Kong doesn't really celebrate Christmas very much. Few people actually celebrate, and some people who do celebrate do so without even knowing the story, the incredible miracle that started it all. So yes, I was rather terrified that my mission Christmas would be the worst Christmas ever. I was scared that I would be homesick, and that the homesickness would distract me from the work and just make me miserable. And I definitely didn't want my family to be a weakness, something that brought me down. I wanted them to be a light, to lift me up. So I prayed a lot, really hard, for a long time, asking that God would help me to keep a positive, grateful attitude, that my Christmas day telephone call home would fill me up, so to speak. And you know what? My prayer was answered. I've felt so happy all week, and talking to my family lifted me up, made me feel like I was ready to go for another 6 months or so until we can talk again!

We had a ward Christmas party last Saturday, and our elders, the Mandarin elders, and Sister Chan and I sang 'Angels We Have Heard on High' as part of the program. I sang the first verse in French, Sister Chan sang it again in Cantonese, and then all six of us sang the second verse in English. I was shaking up a storm I was so nervous! But it turned out alright. Actually, I didn't think I sounded particularly good, but Sister Chan sang so beautifully. Seriously, it sounded just like an angel. I was so proud of her, and she was even more terrified than I was. But the best part is what we found out later. One of the boys who was recently baptized, Tony, has had a challenging time feeling the Spirit. He really likes church, but often says he doesn't quite understand what it means to feel the Spirit. But after the party, he was talking with the elders, and he said, "How did the sisters sing like that?" And the elders asked what he meant, and he said, "I felt something, so warm and peaceful. How can they do that?" The elders explained that it was the Spirit, and that it was confirming the truth of the message of the song. When they told us what Tony said, I was so touched. So often, we don't know if what we're doing helps anyone, has any effect. I know that so many people have blessed my life, and they may never know that what they did had such an impact on me. Some days I come home and feel like I did nothing, like I helped no one. But I remind myself that God sent me all the way to Hong Kong to be an instrument in his hands, and that I just have to trust that he is using me. And I don't need to know. Honestly, I just want to help people, and I love to know when I am helping because it makes me feel good, but if I never know, that doesn't even matter.

Fortunately, the mission gives us plenty of opportunities to get over fear of singing in public. In addition to singing at the Christmas party, I also was obliged (forced) to sing a solo at the missionary Christmas party. And that was just plain bad haha. I don't know what happened, because at all the practices it was okay, but when I actually sang, it just sounded bad! Haha, but not nearly as bad as our Christmas Eve night caroling! Elder Goodrich, Elder Parry, Sister Chan, and I went caroling for a couple of hours, and by the end our voices were shot, we'd laughed more than we sang, and the parts where we did sing... well, let's just say it was rough haha. But it was such a fun experience, and I think we cheered up some people. We got a lot of smiles, that's for sure. People aren't really used to caroling over here, so even if you sound really bad, they'll still listen for a little bit because it's such a novelty!

Last week's English class was so funny! We taught them different medical words, like names of illnesses, remedies, etc. Then we played a game called, "What's Wrong With the Elders?" So the elders would go to the front of the room and pretend like they were sick or seriously injured, and the students would take turns diagnosing and prescribing. It was hilarious. I just sat in the corner crying tears (of laughter, obviously). And we taught the students two phrases: "Rub some dirt in it!" and "Put a bandaid on it!" And if the students said either of those, they'd get two extra points! The three (maybe four) people who know that inside joke can fully appreciate that. But for the rest of you, let me take you back to my childhood for a couple sentences. So in elementary school, we went to CCC lab every week. Sometimes we'd do really boring things, but sometimes they'd let us play Busy Town, the best, coolest game ever. Basically, you go around the town and help out the baker, the carpenter, the grocer, all sorts of people. And the best place to go? The doctor. The doctor was a giant, friendly lion. One by one, his patients would come in and say something like, "My knee hurts," "My head hurts," "My stomach hurts." And each time, Doctor Lion would say, "Put a bandaid on it!" (as though a bandaid would cure a headache.) And then you click and drag the bandaid to the correct body part! Pretty fun, huh? So ever since then, every time one of my family members complained of some sort of ailment, we would say, "put a bandaid on it!" And I taught it to friends at BYU. And now, I've spread that inside joke to people literally halfway across the world from home! So maybe this incredibly long-winded story didn't really make you laugh. Or even smile. But just trust me, it's really funny.

So that was a good English class. But yesterday's English class was the best one ever. Only three people came (none of them church members), a mother who speaks mostly Mandarin, a little Cantonese, and next to no English, and her two children, a 12-year-old girl and 6-year-old boy. It was the day after Christmas, so we decided that we'd just teach them the Christmas story in English. So we had each person draw pictures on the board of different parts of the Christmas story. So they learned words like 'shepherd,' 'stable,' 'manger,' 'wise men.' Then the elders told the Christmas story from start to finish. And then they all stood up and told the Christmas story using the pictures we drew. And it was so beautiful, to be there to witness someone learn about the Christmas story for the first time. Really, it's a gaaisik mhdou ge gingyihm (undescribable experience). And Sue, the daughter, who comes to English class pretty regularly, hardly ever talks. She's incredibly shy, and refuses to show emotion. The elders always ask her to do something, or ask if she likes and she'll say No every time. But we got her up there, she participated, and she even smiled! And then we showed them the five-minute Nativity movie that doesn't have any words, just music. I love that movie so much. And afterwards, we were all so quiet. Then Elder Parry asked Sue how she felt. And she thought for a second, then said, "Peaceful." Wow. She felt the Spirit. It was such a silent, sacred moment. I wish I could find the words to describe it, but I really can't. I don't know. I wish you could have been there.

So I've come up with the theme of my Christmas this year--this line from O Little Town of Bethlehem: "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven." The joy of this Christmas didn't come from any big Christmas celebration. There wasn't any snow; in fact, it wasn't even cold! The memories of this Christmas in Hong Kong probably don't seem very significant to people who didn't experience them: a lack of homesickness; Tony's testimony of the Spirit; having fun despite our lack of singing talent; Sue's family learning the Christmas story. But these memories will always be really special to me. The best blessings often come silently, and if we're not looking out, we might miss them. I'm so grateful for this opportunity to serve, but really I'm receiving more blessings than I'll ever be able to pay back through my service. But isn't that the point of Christmas? Celebrating the biggest gift, one given to the whole world, one that we can never repay--the Savior's life.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Week 25: in which I shed tears of joy on more than one occasion, and in which gaining weight could be considered a blessing (I know, weird, right?)

Hello everyone! What a wonderful, happy, laughter-filled week! I got a new companion this week, Sister Chan, and she is an angel. Really. I've never been so happy as a missionary as I am with her. She leads by example, and serves others as often and as quietly as she can. She's from Hong Kong, and she just started learning English on her mission. When I first heard I would have a native companion, I was so nervous that we wouldn't be able to communicate well, but her English is improving constantly, as well as my Cantonese. I feel like my language skyrocketed this week, and I have no fear talking to people, whether they be ward members, investigators, or people on the MTR or bus! I just want to share this miraculous message with anyone who will listen, so if the first person won't, I'll just go on to the next! We've been so busy, and I feel so happy. Seriously, I've said so many thankful prayers in my head throughout this week. So many good things happen and I just want to share them with Heavenly Father. I've never felt so grateful before! It just keeps getting better, and it will keep getting better for eternity! Brothers and sisters, my fire is BACK and BETTER THAN EVER!

T-shirts of the week: First one: "RO SE, woule you say yES!" (That was their spelling error, not mine, by the way.) The second one confused me so much at first, because all it said was, "Rookie Dolphin." Yeah. Like they just became a dolphin, so right now they're not very good at it or something? But then I thought maybe it was talking about the football team? Which would make more sense. But it was still incredibly vague, and the person wearing it probably didn't know what it said anyways.

So one of the members in our ward, Sarah, is a miracle. She's 18 years old, and for most of her life has been in and out of the hospital because of various health problems. But her testimony is so powerful, so strong, and with each trial it just gets stronger! Her latest trial: she has to be on dialysis (I don't know what that is, but it's what she's on), and that has caused her to gain some weight. We've visited her a few times in the hospital, and her mom told us how hard the weight gain has been for Sarah. And what a blessing to be able to understand her trial. Really, it's weird, but it makes me kind of grateful to have this experience, because I can understand a little better how she feels. I can empathize with her a little better. And wow, to think that Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, also knows how we feel. Through his Atonement, he knows how it feels to gain weight, to feel bad about how you look. He's experienced that pain so that I don't have to! And it seems so trivial. At least I'm not starving or dying or alone. But he wanted to help me, so he took upon himself that experience so that he could know how I feel. So that he could know me perfectly.

So Elder Parry and Elder Goodrich (the elders in our ward) showed us the results of a particularly productive companion study: March Madness, Prophet edition. Basically, they listed a bunch of prophets and ranked them based on how awesome they are. Each one was given a different number of points, based on their rank, and then they played each other. So for example, Moses got 9 points, so 9 coins, and they'd flip each coin and count how many landed flower-side up. That's how many points he'd get for that round. And so they played all the prophets and Joseph Smith won! But there were some pretty crazy upsets, and John the Baptist got way further than expected! It was hilarious.

I've had O Holy Night stuck in my head all week (Sister Chan and I hum it whenever we're walking anywhere), and these lyrics have been on my mind: "Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother." I love that. Each person I meet is my brother or sister, and Christ has suffered and died for them, so that they can be freed from the chains of sin and death. But so many people here don't know that; in fact, they don't even know who Jesus Christ is. And that's where we come in! We have to share what we know to anyone who will listen, because they are our family members! They are our brothers and sisters! And we may not remember, but we lived with them before this life with our Heavenly Father, and we'll see them again after this life. My time here is so short, and I'm starting to really feel how short it is. I only have a year left! Time is flying. And Gandalf's line from Lord of the Rings keeps going through my head: "All that we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us." I don't want to waste time being half-hearted, thinking about things that I've lost or that I'm missing out on. I'm all here!

I am so happy! I love you all so much!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Week 24: in which I saw Gandalf the Gray at least five times, and in which the people of Hong Kong become ever more Christlike (even if they don't know it yet!)

Hello everyone! How is life in the good ol' US of A? Hong Kong is as exciting as ever!

T-shirts of the week: The first one seemed really normal at first. But when I did a double-take, I realized that it had a huge UK flag on the front. And printed underneath: New York, New York. Yeah, I don't know. Whatever. The second t-shirt: "Now I will eat ice cream for breakfast." Yeah. I almost offered to buy it from her. But then I thought that'd be weird.

So I guess the Hobbit is coming out or something? Because I can't escape the posters of Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel, the dwarves (not that I'd want to escape anyways). Every time I see them, my heart is filled with joy and love and serenity. Kind of like reading the scriptures, but a little different.

So last week, we were in the elevator of our apartment building with a woman, and we started talking to her. Her name is Emmy, and we just greeted her and did some small talk (Have you eaten yet? Our equivalent of talking about the weather.) And then we left the building to walk to church. After a minute or two, we heard, "Hello! Hello!" And she was running to catch up to us! And she asked me, "Do you have a coat?" (It's not quite cold enough for me to wear one yet, but everyone here is already freezing cold haha. Utah trained me well!) And I told her I did, but she still offered to give me one. So we kept saying no thank you, and then she walked with us for a ways on her way to work. And that evening we came home around 9:30. And I had a giant bag on my desk! And the other sisters told us that Emmy had found our apartment (we have a picture of Jesus on the door, so it's pretty easy to find) and dropped off two coats for me! And they were NICE coats. So now I have a beautiful, black trenchcoat! I am so blown away by how charitable the people here are. They follow Christ without even knowing it.

Raven asked us a couple weeks ago to help her learn hymns so that she can participate more in sacrament meetings, so we started last week with Silent Night. And can I tell you, there are few things sweeter than teaching someone who is just learning what it means to be a Christian the words to one of the most sacred, precious songs about him. I felt the Spirit so strong. What a blessing to be here, to help people come to know Christ. Their Savior. Who knows them perfectly. What a blessing. I wish I could explain it more fully the feeling I have as I'm typing about this experience, but there aren't words in the English language (or Cantonese) to describe it.

I've been learning so much these past few weeks, and I feel like I'm coming up out of that emotional valley I was in for a while. It's hard climbing out of valleys, because it's all uphill. But when you get out, the view is so worth it and you learn so much more. I've struggled (and am still struggling) with a lot of negative thoughts: about my body, about my lack of ability or competence, about things that I miss or that I gave up to come on my mission. And I was wondering what was wrong with me, why I couldn't overcome this negative thoughts. Why did they affect me so much? Am I doing something wrong, am I weak? Why can't I just choose to not think those things? But then I read a quote from a note Rachel sent me in the MTC. Albus Dumbledore once said, "In the end, Harry, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you." We all will struggle with those thoughts, and sometimes we can't always control what we think. But that doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not you push through those thoughts. What matters is your desires, your testimony. And when everything else was up in the air, when I couldn't stop the churning, frantic thoughts in my mind, the thing I held onto was my testimony of Jesus Christ. I don't know what to do or where to go, but I know Christ lives and that because he lives, I can live again with him. And I held onto that until the storm in my mind stopped. And the storms will always stop eventually. They will always stop, and when they do, the sun will shine through the clouds and you will see that you've made it to land, you've made it home.

I love you all! Thank you so much for your prayers, letters, and support!

Fwd: Week 23: in which I keep my chin up and learn a thing or two

Hello family and friends! I am so grateful that it is Monday! We are in Tai Po today, right near the borders of Mainland China! Pretty exciting, huh? After emailing, we'll venture into the rain to buy some fake jade and some cheap clothes. This is the life!

T shirt of the week: "I shoot people." It has a giant camera with a bullet coming out of it. I thought it was kind of clever actually!

This has been another challenging week, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, but do you want to know the miracle? I can honestly pray every night and thank the Lord for these experiences, because their role in my growth and progression as a missionary and a person are so readily evident. I feel stronger and braver than I've ever felt before! And I've never been so aware of my weaknesses either. I'm praying harder, crying harder, working harder, smiling harder, laughing harder, sleeping harder than I've ever done before, and I'm not even one-third of the way done with this mission thing! You won't even recognize me when I get home! And I'm not just saying that because of how much weight I'll have gained by then haha. (Just kidding. Kind of?)

So the other day I saw a sign advertising for the annual Cantonese Opera Festival. Of course, I immediately thought of last summer's wonderful opera experiences with Granny and Rebecca, especially singing La Donna Est Mobile and the Queen of the Night's song in the kitchen while washing dishes. And then I noticed one of the special events on the poster: Opera Sing Along. YES. They have a sing-along section at the festival. And if I weren't a missionary, I'd be there in a heartbeat haha.

Speaking of singing, turns out I have a solo in the mission Christmas program! Yes, that's right, I'll be hitting the big stage! The elder in charge of the choir just kind of told me (no, not asked, told) in the middle of rehearsal haha, so that was a lovely experience. I don't think my ears have ever turned so red before, but I did alright anyways.

Good news! We've been doing a lot of praying and thinking about Raven, and we talked to her the other day about her baptismal date. And we challenged her to get baptized before the end of the year, so we're planning on December 30th! We're praying so hard that everything will work out! She is so clearly prepared, and we just love her! She is a light!

We've had a lot of trouble finding new people to teach recently, which means we've been doing quite a bit of finding, and I'm actually starting to love it. Secretly. Don't tell Sister Taylor quite yet haha. I talked to a few school girls this week, and at first I got really nervous before talking to them, but turns out they usually are kind of in awe of these 20-something year old American girls, so really there's no reason to be nervous! It's all an adventure, and even the straight-up rejection by the old po-pos (old grandmas) can make it fun if you have a good attitude about it!

In English class, we were teaching a bunch of idioms, one of them being "Keep your chin up!" And Paul, our English class regular, asked, "So what does 'Keep your chin down' mean?" So now we've started saying that all the time haha.

I love this quote by Elder Maxwell: "Consecration is the only surrender that is also a victory." It's so true. When we truly consecrate our wills to Heavenly Father, that is when we truly succeed, truly find happiness. Sacrificing for this mission is the best choice I've ever made, and I love the trials, the challenges, and the small, daily victories. I love the people, I love the food (although maybe not what it does to me or my bowels haha), I love the work, I love the Lord. And I love all of you!