The Bala Daily - 巴樂日報

Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Thursday, August 23, 2012

懇親日: Visitation Day, Part 1

Head squaddie (班頭), you taking the bus to the train station when they let us out on Visitation Day? Also, want a bento box when you get back? Mess hall is closed the day we come back.

"Yeah, but I'm taking the high speed rail back. Lunch box please."

I made a note of his choices in my small pocket notebook that I'd purchased at the PX on Induction Day. Given the general ban on smart phones and PDAs, we'd all reverted back to pen and paper.

"Damn, that's close to a quarter of your pay this month... okay, Squaddie 3, how 'bout you?"

"Didn't I tell you before that I'll be hailing a taxi myself, Squaddie 2?"

"Sorry, new orders from above say that when we leave on Visitation Day, its either with our parents, or on the bus to the train station."

"Fine, I'll take the bus."

I scribbled this down in my notebook. As the second tallest recruit in our squad, it had fallen on me to handle all the miscellaneous tasks our Head Squaddie didn't have time to handle on top of his normal duties of keeping track where everyone was. My tiny pocket notebook was filling up fast.

Visitation Day (懇親日) marks the halfway point during basic training. On Visitation Day, family and friends are invited on base to see how their loved ones are dealing with their new lives in the military. For us recruits, Visitation Day represented a reprieve from the usual training regimen, our first contact with the outside world since induction, and more importantly: our first leave. The whole event plays an almost mythical role in the cultural perception of military service in Taiwan.

What's he crying about? He's gonna be on leave in less than 4 hours.

"Listen up! All of you will be recieving new BDUs for Visitation Day. Also, you will take turns manning the check-in desk for relatives coming on base as follows..."

With PR concerns in play, our superiors were taking no chances. All relatives coming on base were to check into a desk manned by two professionally staffed new recruits who would match their names with the presubmitted list, while being courtious and professional.

Sort of a tall order for a class comprised mainly of 19 year old kids just out of high school. Being the best educated amongst the group, I was thrown to manning the check-in desk for most of the morning.

Friday, August 03, 2012

未進彈!Off target!

Mk. 2 grenade (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
"SIR! New Recruit 030 reporting at the grenade range for my first grenade training exercise, SIR!"

I stood at the staring point of a short runway of about 10 meters in full combat gear, staring down what looked like a typical long jump course, a dummy Mark 2 grenade clutched in my right hand. Typical except for the fact that instead of a sandpit, the track terminated with a thick white line drawn on the ground, beyond which was were two straight lines radiating outwards. Various lines at 20, 25, 30, and 40 meters were marked beyond. Two drill sergeants sat behind a folding desk placed at the thick white line.

I charged forwards suppressing a wild yell.

"Damn, that white line line is coming up fast" I thought.

"Remember", I recalled my drill sergeant saying before the exercise, "a hand grenade is much heavier than a baseball. DO NOT THROW IT LIKE A BASEBALL! We once had a new recruit who tried to do that and we still remember the sound of his elbow fracturing as he hurled..."

Bearing this in mind, I tried to hurl my dummy grenade as gingerly as I could overhand, fearful of the crack from my humerus splitting into a million pieces.

The grenade went sailing over the white line.

Oh yeah, I'm supposed to hit the ground now, right?

I dropped to the dirt with my head propped up between my two elbows.

"Off target!" (「未進彈!」), the sergeant observing the entire fiasco yelled through his bullhorn, as my grenade landed about 15 meters from the white line where I was sprawled on the ground. Well within the blast radius of about 25 meters.

"Twenty pushups, then to the disqualified group!", our company CO yelled, from where he was observing the entire spectacle off to the side.

Hand grenade hurling is one of those tests that every new recruit is tested on at the end of basic training. To qualify, you must successfully hurl a dummy hand grenade at least 25 meters from a running start, and have it land between two gradually radiating lines that at the most, are about a meter wide.

This is also the test that most new recruits fail. I took my place in the group of failures. A drill sergeant glared at us.

"Alright, line up here and try to go through the moves of grenade hurling from this line when I order you to."
Lined up with a dozen other new recruits, I stood at the starting line facing a foam mat about 30 meters away that marked the finish line.


I charged forwards as fast as a I could. Here comes the line... I twisted and hurled, before dropping on the mat.

The sergeant stood over me, shaking his head.

"You are completely uncoordinated. You've got the power, but not the control. Go do the Mario dance until I tell you to stop."

I proceeded to run back and forth in front of the company twisting my hips, and jumping around with my fists in the air, as if I was doing some weird hybrid of the salsa dance while stomping pixelated turtles.

This was supposed to promote coordination.

Another colleague of mine, a big guy, who had been a drum player in an indie rock band before being drafted did an impressive approximation of an Olympics discus thrower... only to have the dummy grenade fall about 5 meters in front of him.

"What the hell was that? From now on you throw underhanded!" 

After the rest of the company had their first round, we tried a second round at the grenade range.

"SIR! New Recruit 030 reporting at the grenade range for my second grenade training exercise, SIR!"

 Okay, run... twist your hips, here comes the line, THROW!!!


I threw the grenade like I was trying to make a pass from center field to home plate. Drill Sergeant warnings be dammed.

I hit the dirt. Again. And waited for the observing sergeant's assessment.

My grenade landed about 30 meters away, about 10 meters to the left of the two designed lines


Walking back to the disqualified line, we subjected ourselves to our CO's latest improvement scheme... flinging dumbbells over our shoulders.

("AND KEEP AT IT", he yelled through his megaphone, after yet another morning at the grenade range)

My indie band friend warmed up for his second try, taking off down the track like an Olympic sprinter on fire, swinging his arm so fast I could have sworn it would have been dislocated on lesser men...


He flung the grenade mightily. We all stared downrange expecting to see company records broken....

"HEADS UP!!!", the spotter yelled.

We all ducked instinctively. The grenade fell about 20 meters behind where he had released it.

"GODDAMNIT! MY NCO'S ARE IDIOTS!", our CO yelled, bringing his foot down so hard on the plastic milk crate he was resting it on that it buckled. The rest of us were treated to the spectacle of the CO trying to kick off the milk crate now attached to his leg, while utilizing vocabulary not approved by the Ministry of National Defense.

Monday, April 23, 2012

營站: The PX

"You all did well at the range today, so the the CO has authorized a visit to the PX after you've cleaned up your personal items."

Our squad leader has barely finished before the barracks was filled with excited chatter.

"About time!"
"Man, I've been running low on junk food-"
"Screw junk food, I've been reduced to stealing your toothpaste every evening-"
"Hey, lend me NT$100 - I spent all my change in the vending machines out back-"

The noise level dropped by half.

"Aw, not this agai-"


Dead silence.

"You have been here for close to a week now. AND YOU STILL DON'T KNOW HOW TO COME TO ATTENTION?"

We rapidly shuffled back in front of our bunks, mostly covered with our BDUs and half-removed gear.

"You have 5 minutes to neatly put away your items in their assigned places. Feel free to talk as loud as you want as long as you don't mind me calling off the whole PX visit. Carry on."

We went back to arranging things as quickly as we could, shushing each other in the process.

"Hey, lend me NT$500 -"

5 minutes later we were neatly lined up outside the barracks. I can't recall the last time I'd seen everyone assemble that quickly and quietly.

After a quick headcount, our squad leaders marched us off between the lines of barracks towards the PX.

The PX (營站) was a medium sized building near the edge of base, containing a small Mom and Pop commissary; as well as one of the major convenience store chains that are practically an institution in and of themselves in Taiwan. Some aluminum picnic tables were placed in the courtyard. The commissary sold various snacks, drinks, smokes, and personal accessories - all tax free. The convenience store was more or less identical to those on the outside, though lacking in alcoholic beverages. I've also noticed that convenience store clerks on military bases throughout Taiwan tend to be young, female, and (by our admittedly deprived standards) cute.

As far as we were concerned, it was all a little slice of heaven.

The PX was normally off limits to new recruits. We'd been there once on our first day to purchase a few basic accessories including toiletries, a can of boot polish, a shoe brush, a soapbox (for inspection use only - most of us used the quicker shower gel thanks to our 2 minute combat showers), some elastic blousers, a sewing kit, a small notebook, and a foam pad to line the insides of our helmets.

"You will assemble in front of the PX in 20 minutes", our squad leader said. "Until then, your time is your own." He walked off, lighting a cigarette.

We all rushed inside, hurriedly filling our shopping baskets with practically anything that caught our fancy. I picked up a can of cough drops: despite the best efforts of our superiors, the common cold was spreading rampant in the barracks, and 2/3's of us were afflicted with a nasty cough.

Several recruits stocked up on instant noodles, which many preferred to the mess hall food. I didn't really understand that - mess hall food isn't gourmet, but it is at least Real Food, and relatively fresh. The smokers amongst us also took the opportunity to replenish their personal cigarette stashes. Military policy is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to smoking: the barracks walls are plastered with anti-smoking posters, and incoming troops are required to sign forms committing them to quitting. The forms were passed out by a drill sergeant smoking a cigarette. Like everything else, the cigarettes in the PX were tax-free, and many troops stocked up on extra smokes to bring off base with them. I'd estimate that something close to half of the troops in the units I've served with were smokers.

Shoe brush, NT$19, Made in Taiwan.

Rushing back outside, we enjoyed what time we had left drinking our soft drinks and munching on our snacks. I sat at the same table as our squad leaders, who for the moment, had let their drill sergeant facade drop. Both were draftee corporals, and were considered to be some of the more human elements in our chain of command, as long as you weren't too dense.

"By the way squad leader, I forgot to thank you for letting me sneak a shower the third night after lights out."

"No problem. I noticed you were being pulled out of the squad for a bunch of different general details during wash time that night."

"So, do you come here often, squad leader?"

"Not as much as I'd like. Its the only spot on base where I can kick back for a moment. After you guys leave, I've only got 1 month of my conscription left."

Free time on base is rare, and fleeting when it does happen. All too soon, we were in formation marching back to the barracks for evening inspection.

I don't think I've ever had a soda or a candy bar that's tasted as good as they did during those rare visits to the PX.