Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
You can repair almost anything with blousing rubbers (綁腿).
In Taiwan military parlance, certain individuals are referred to as "heavenly soldiers" (天兵, pronounced: tien bing), as in "Good heavens, where did this idiot come from?" This is often used as an adjective: "When did the head of 1st squad get so heavenly?" (「一班的班頭什麼時候變那麼天啊？」)
And they say that Asians don't get sarcasm...
By our fourth day of real training, the heavenly soldiers (technically we were all airmen, but the Chinese term doesn't distinguish between service branches) in our company were fairly well known to everyone. Like Dwa Koh (大軀, Taiwanese for Fatty) over in 1st squad who managed to break 3 folding stools by sitting on them: real heavenly. Or that small vegetarian kid who tried whistling at a female sergeant major in the mess hall the other day: if he were any more heavenly they'd be paying him with ghost money.
We weren't entirely convinced that they really were that dense. It was widely suspected that many knew full well what they were doing, but choose to act idiotically either out of personal amusement, or as a practical way of escaping extra duties after the drill sergeants classified them as unreliable idiots. They also provided the very useful function of deflecting the unwanted attention of our superiors from the rest of us.
It is always useful to have a few heavenly soldiers in your company to act as decoys for the ire of your superiors.
Our first day of live fire target practice came within a week of the start of our training. Up till then, we had endured countless drills on basic targeting, T65-K2 rifle maintenance, and the target practice SOP. The previous night, our CO had warned us that we would depart for the 25 meter calibration range first thing in the morning. "I strongly suggest that you sleep in your BDUs, and have everything ready to go once you wake up in the morning", he said.
The wake up call came as usual at 0530, though most of us had been up by 0510, folding our blankets and mosquito nets, arranging our bunks, and doing everything we could to prepare short of stepping onto the barracks floor (strictly forbidden before 0530). At the moment the wake up call sounded, I hit the floor, slipped into my boots, bloused my pant legs, and began the process of donning all the gear that we'd been issued since induction, mentally checking off the items as I strapped them on ...
M-1 helmet... check.
Gas mask in carrying pouch strapped to shoulder and waist... check.
Utility belt (now containing my canteen, two ammo pouches with four empty magazines, bayonet in scabbard, and a pouch with a copy of the ROC Army Basic Infantry Manual)... check.
ID badge with colored dot denoting the proper day of week... check.
Shovel jammed into the space between my belt and back... check.
Rain poncho stuffed behind the shovel... check.
Folding chair hooked onto my belt over the canteen and infantry manual... check.
There was a loud crash, followed by cursing as the recruit we would dub Brother Elevator (電梯哥) fell out of his second level bunk, while folding his blanket. I moved on to the list of things to check before leaving the barracks...
Locker properly arranged in order of BDUs and workout uniform, with arms neatly tied behind... check.
Everything else thrown into the bottom of the locker and neatly covered with a towel draped from blousing rubbers hooked exactly 20 notches from the bottom... check.
No easily visible trash on the floor... check.
I joined the cascade of recruits dashing out of the barracks to muster on the company assembly grounds outside before the deadline at 0540.
"Hey, you did remember to shut the upper windows right?"
"What? I thought you did that!"
"No, I thought you did."
I dashed back inside the barracks past the last of the recruits charging in the opposite direction, clambered onto the top bunks, and slammed the upper windows closed in our squad's section. I then attempted to leap down gracefully onto the floor.
Unfortunately, the handle of my shovel caught on the top bunk, and I ended up landing on my side and rolling like a paratrooper hitting the ground, eventually coming to a stop at the feet of my squad leader.
"Get off the floor and get outside with everyone else!"
I dashed out the door just as the officer of the day started to take roll. One recruit from 1st squad was standing in front of the company with three fingers pointed in front of his face on one hand, and two on the other - he had apparently been shifting his weight from one leg to another, colloquially known as a 3/7-ths stance (三七步).
Swallowing a deep breath, I ran in front of the officer of the day, did an about right, and pulled off the snappiest salute I could manage...
"Reporting sir, New Recruit ___ requests to join formation." (「報告值星官，新兵___請示入列！」)
"Why are you late?"
"Reporting sir, I was closing the windows in the barracks."
He glared at me for what looked like an eternity, as the rest of the company stared on in silence. I prayed that he was in a good mood.
"Join ranks. And don't forget to close the windows in the future."
Relieved at having dodged this bullet, I joined formation. Our rifles were issued after a quick breakfast of stewed pork in steamed buns (割包). Slinging the guns over our shoulders, we marched off base towards the range.
Continued on Part 2.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
"Hey, why isn't G doing dishes with the rest of us?"
"Didn't you hear? He said he injured his leg or something, so he's in POA's office for further observation. He's temporarily excused from mess squad duties."
In Taiwan, every company level military unit has a resident psychologist / counselor. The counselor, almost always a junior officer, provides chaplain-like functions, personnel decisions based upon aptitude testing, morale boosting activities, and provides a sympathetic ear to the junior enlisted troops. In most units, the counselor acts as the good cop to the CO's (commanding officer) bad cop.
The counselor's official title is 輔導長 (lead counselor). In practice, he/she is almost universally referred to as "POA" (noun, pronounced "poe-eh"). I used to think that POA was an acronym for something. Turns out, like many slang terms in Taiwan, its an English transliteration of the Taiwanese nickname for the counselor: 輔仔.
I have seen good officers and lousy officers. However, my experience with the POA's at all my units has been universally positive. It is a thankless position - often dealing with draftees with various real or imagined physical or psychological disorders. I haven't yet met a POA who didn't at some point go the extra mile for the troops under their charge, many of whom in no way deserved the level of courtesy that POA showed them.
Our POA was a young female 1st Lieutenant, whom most people would describe as "kind of cute". As far as the new recruits in our company, deprived of cell phones, outside company, and subject to round-the-clock military discipline, were concerned, she might as well have been a supermodel. POA was almost always working overtime dealing with the various criseses associated with new conscripts - more than one of whom admitted faking some condition just to spend time excused from training, and in her presence.
Although as conscripts none of us were interested in a military career, most of us (either through pride, ego, or loyalty to our fellow recruits) had decided to see the whole thing through by this point. Nonetheless, the ROC military does leave a way out for individuals with pre-existing or acquired physical or psychological conditions. This is referred to as 驗退 (medical discharge after examination), and is attainable only after a lengthy process of appeal and examination by a military doctor.
"Hey, why is G still gone? He's been in POA's office for two days now."
"Didn't you hear? POA sent him off to the military hospital in Kaohsiung along with the rest of the sick bus this morning so he could get his leg X-rayed."
Although receiving such an early discharge was often the subject of jokes between us ("Hey, run over my foot with the wheelbarrow so I can apply for a medical discharge"), few actually considered intentionally pursuing it. For a few however, getting out early via a medical discharge was an appealing prospect.
"Hey, did you hear about what happened to G at the hospital today?"
"No. And why isn't he back here by now? I had to handle his cleaning duties on top of mine today."
"They say he went nuts at the hospital. Suddenly started ranting, foaming at the mouth, and peeing all over the floor. Said he wanted to kill himself."
"WTF? He was perfectly normal when he left."
"The docs there want to hold him in the psych ward for a week or so for further observation."
"That asshole... so we have to do his work for him now, while he gets to lounge around in bed all day?"
G would eventually return to the mess squad two weeks later, the doctors having decided that his "mental breakdown" was a farce. His efforts were not all for naught however, as he did recieve a consolation prize: his leg was enough to earn him a "full stop" (全休) to most physical training. Along with individuals with similar classification, he was still required to serve his full service term, but would be exempt from nearly all PT and field training. To balance this out, the squad formed by such individuals ended up being assigned to handle various menial tasks to free up other recruits. As a result, those of us in the mess squad finally got to participate in morning PT with the rest of the company.
As a conscript, slacking off, or "drifting" (飄) as its referred to colloquially is a time honored tradition. However, the biggest corollary to this is Thou Shalt Not Inconvenience Thy Fellow Conscripts Through Thy Slacking Off. Individuals repeatedly violating this find themselves rapidly ostracized from the rest of the group, as their assigned workload would have to be picked up by someone else. Consequently, individuals acquiring full stop or medical discharge status are viewed with suspicion by fellow troops and officers alike. Individuals known to have done so fraudulently are held in very low esteem by everyone. G's reputation amongst the rest of the recruits would never fully recover.
Despite this, there was always a steady trickle of individuals who would attempt to follow the same path (there are tons of discussions online on how to do this). I would often run into them while delivering their meal trays to POA's office at mealtime, where they sat lounging around.
"So, what's your story?"
"I sprained my ankle during field exercises."
"Oh, sorry to hear that. Get well soon."
"Oh no. I plan to stay crippled for as long as I can so I can keep skipping PT."
"Oh. Well, best of luck not getting well soon."
"Thanks. So, what happened today after I left?"
"Oh, the usual. Sorry, got to head back to the mess hall, still more work to be done there."
Thursday, November 10, 2011
"... and to be honest, as section leader, my first impression of your class has been very very poor."
As one of the most senior NCOs in our training company, we typically addressed the staff sergeant (E-6) by his position, as is common in the ROC armed forces: section leader (組長). Word was, he'd been in the Army for 12 years. He stared at us with a look that seemed to mix disdain with general apathy - his usual attitude toward us new recruits. This had a tendency of changing on select occasions. Our first introduction to him was in the mess hall when one of the mess squads from an adjacent company failed to don surgical masks while dishing out chow. The explosion of profanity and clang of trays being thrown frisbee-style across the room could be heard throughout the building.
Now, we were gathered around him in a semicircle, sweating in full combat gear, for our first real introduction to using our T-65K2 assault rifles for their intended purpose... namely, passing our final qualification exam at the end of basic training.
"Your objective will be to land 4 out of 6 rounds within the designated target area at 175 meters during your final exam (監測) at the end of basic training. In a few days, you will have your first target practice outing, firing at calibration targets at a distance of 25 meters - a piece of cake."
He paused for dramatic effect...
"We will now practice for your first outing using simulated targets at 25 meters. You may rest your unloaded rifles on sandbags while in the lying position that you will be assuming at the firing range. You will follow a precise procedure at the range that we will practice now...
Listen up. After the first round is fired your IQs will go from 60 to 30. After the second round, they'll go negative."
We lined up behind half a dozen sandbags placed on the ground, next to several foam mats. Wooden targets resembling an inverted U were placed some distance away.
"Now I hope you've been reading the material we've issued you to carry around in your pockets. What trajectory does a bullet take upon leaving the muzzle of your rifle?"
"Are you all mutes or something?"
"Reporting sergeant! A parabolic trajectory!" (「報告組長，拋物線！」), a rather brave (and obese) recruit yelled.
"And where are you from?" (「你是哪裡人？」)
"Reporting sergeant, New Taipei City!" (「報告組長，新北市！」)
"What, are you from everywhere in New Taipei?" (「怎樣，全新北都是你家喔？」)
"Reporting sergeant, Tamsui!"(「報告組長，淡水！」)
"Tamsui? Looks like you've been eating too much A-gei (a Tamsui specialty dish consisting of noodles wrapped in tofu)" (「淡水？我看你是啊給吃太多。」)
Sarge proceeded to go down the line, asking everyone where they were from, and coming up with a specific insult corresponding to each.
"Now listen up. Since your bullets will not be flying in a straight line, at 25 meters your bullets should fall about 2.4 centimeters below the target if your aim is true."
We then proceeded to act out the standard operating procedure for target practice:
"Prepare for target practice in lying position!" (「臥射預備！」)
"Preparing for target practice in lying position!", we yelled, taking a step to the left and dropping onto the mats, while resting the stocks of our rifles on the sandbags pointed towards the target.
"Load three bullets, release bolt!" (「三發子彈，送上槍機！」)
"Loading three bullets, releasing bolt!", we yelled while inserting an empty magazine and pushing the bolt release catch on the side of our rifles.
The bolt snapped forward with a satisfying metallic clack, which would have chambered a bullet from the magazine, had there actually been any. If you've ever seen an action movie where a character slaps the side of his rifle after inserting a new magazine, this is what he was doing. We were expressly forbidden from slapping our rifles (Too much potential for weapons damage, our company commander had said).
"Ready on the left!" (「左線預備！」)
"Disengaging safety" (「開保險！」)
"Ready on the right!" (「右線預備！」)
"Taking a deep breath!" (「深呼吸！」)
"Ready along the line!" (「全線預備！」)
"Opening fire!" (「開始射擊！」)
A series of clicks echoed along the line as everyone pulled their triggers.
"You should press the stock of your rifles to your chest during target practice, since your aim will tend to shift when pulling the trigger. We will practice by placing NT$1 coins (about the size of a US penny) on the barrels of your rifles. If you are holding your rifles steady, the coin should not fall off when you pull the trigger.
You will continue this exercise until you have pulled the trigger 20 consecutive times without the coin falling off the barrel."
We proceeded to do just that. Sweating in my steel helmet and long sleeved BDUs in the tropical heat and humidity, I yanked the charging lever of my rifle backwards to cock the firing pin. Another recruit placed placed an NT$1 coin on the barrel. I inhaled and held my breath, and carefully lined up the sights on my rifle, before gently squeezing the trigger using the second joint of my index finger as we were instructed...
By luck, or by skill, the coin stayed put. Maybe I'd get the hang of this after all.
I repeated the process meticulously, sweat starting to pool up under the lining of my helmet. Taiwan still uses the classic US M1-style steel helmet in basic training and other roles where looks or budgets are at a premium (eg. the honor guard). While being heavier and providing less protection than the newer Kevlar versions, it is unmistakably more stylish in a Saving Private Ryan-sort of way.
By now, sweat was running down my face, the rim of my helmet was sliding down over my eyes, and I was struggling to keep my eyes open through the stinging sweat and the increasing blurriness from keeping my right eye open. (Remember, you only have about 15 seconds of effective vision when sighting your target, sarge had warned.)
The unmistakable sound of the coin falling off my rifle barrel jolted me out of whatever zen state I was previously in.
It may sound trivial, but by the end of the hour, no one had managed to go for 20 consecutive shots without the coins falling off their rifle barrels to sounds of frustrated cursing.
It eventually dawned on us that like so many other things in basic training, we were being set up to fail.
"That was pathetic", Sarge said at the end of the session.
"I'm.... I'm sorry sergeant!" (「報...報告組長，對不起！」), one recruit ventured.
"Don't apologize to me, apologize to the country!" (「現在不是對不起我，是對不起國家！」)
Sunday, October 30, 2011
The longer of my two guns. (Original image: Wikimedia Commons)
"All new recruits, proceed to check out your firearms."Our first real exposure to firearms came on our second day of training. Proceeding single file, we checked out our rifles, as well as a bayonet and scabbard (which doubled as a combat knife - or would have had it actually been sharpened), and two ammo pouches to add to our ever growing utility belts, each containing two empty magazines. The recruits in the firearms squad thrust all of these into our hands, before we all rushed back to the parade grounds.
As with the mess squad that I'd been assigned to, another squad of new recruits had been designated as the firearms squad - responsible for the upkeep, regular maintenance, and storage of the company's firearms. Although we would all eventually become versed in the basics of firearms maintenance by way of on the job training, the existence of the firearms squad (as well as the mess squad, equipment squad, and political warfare squad) was one of the consequences of the shortened one month basic training period - too many tasks to handle, with too little time and too few personnel. The preferred solution being to parcel out specific tasks to specific squads of new recruits.
Private firearms ownership is generally illegal in Taiwan, although most kids have had some prior exposure to the whole concept via computer games, movies, and military ed classes in high school and college. As for me, having spent most of my life in the US, I appreciated the option of owning a firearm, and appreciated even more the fact that I never felt the need to actually exercise it. Nonetheless, I'm no gun nut, and had only the vaguest idea of how to handle a modern firearm ("Insert magazine. Point muzzle away from self. Pull trigger.")
We were issued the T-65K2 assault rifle. Functionally and visually, it is similar to the U.S. M-16 assault rifle used in Vietnam, although the T-65K2 is also capable of firing in full auto. While some units now use the newer T-91 (similar to the U.S. M-4), the T-65K2 remains the mainstay of most reservist and non-direct combat military units in Taiwan.
Lined up on the parade grounds with our rifles in our hands, and our bayonets on our belts, you could feel the anticipation as the captain raised his bullhorn, ordering a vocal tally of the rifles in the company. This had to be done by each recruit belting out his number in incremental order and kneeling down after reporting. This procedure would be repeated every time firearms were issued and returned to ensure that all issued weapons were accounted for.
After the requisite three or four repetitions it took us to get this right, we learned our first SOP with the T-65K2: group firearms inspection, intended to ensure that the firing chamber was clear.
"Commence firearms inspection!" (驗槍開始！), the captain yelled.
"Kneeling down for firearms inspection!" (驗槍蹲下！), we shouted, holding our rifles with the butts down on the ground.
Naturally, the basic training version of this was unnecessarily elaborate, and required full group synchronization and recitation. We spent an hour trying to get this right.
Our superiors took great pleasure in ordering us to hold our rifles aloft pointed skyward while in a half kneeling position using only our left hand for extended periods of time, ostensibly to check whether there were any foreign objects in the chamber (「通視槍膛！」). Unloaded, the T-65K2 weighs 3.31 kilograms. After 10 seconds in this position, it might as well be 3.31 tons. Arms were shaking up and down the line, interspersed with yelling from the drill sergeants directed at recruits whose rifles were deemed to be less than near vertical.
Lesson: The Army can turn anything into a hazing ritual.
The SOP ends with the synchronized testing of the triggers of the now confirmed empty rifles:
"Fire! Fire again!" (擊發！再擊發！)
Sloppy rendition of the firearms inspection SOP, sans firearms.
It is worth noting that firearms are euphemisms for certain male body parts in many cultures, and Taiwan is no exception. The unofficial lyrics of one popular military marching song goes "I have two guns. One is longer than the other..." (「我有兩支槍，長短不一樣...」).
That evening, a group of new recruits decided to perform a group recital of the firearms inspection SOP in the company showers, complete with requisite sound effects. They had barely gotten to the part about test firing when a gaggle of drill sergeants burst in demanding the identities of those involved. When no answer was forthcoming, everyone in the showers was hauled off to the company office pending further investigation.
Monday, October 24, 2011
"God, why do they keep giving us lukewarm seawater to drink?"
"Well, the drill sergeants add hydration salts to all our drinking water, and you remember the captain's little speech about only drinking warm water to keep us from catching colds...""Yeah? Well its 30 degrees Celsius out right now. And if he's so worried, why the vending machines?""Well, if you want to risk getting cold water from the talking drinking fountain next to the company office that vocally thanks you for perusing cold water, then be my guest."
The dozen or so of us in the mess squad sat beneath the trees lining the outdoors company dishwashing area for a much needed break. The mountain of pots, pans, and trays from breakfast finally scrubbed, organized, and hauled back to their storage areas, and the bins of food waste and hogwash hauled off to the garbage dumpsters. On the other side of the building, the rest of our training company was assembling for our first real day of basic training after their half hour post-breakfast break.
Although we would soon join the rest of the company, our squad leaders had allowed us a short breather. Most of my squad mates took the opportunity to smoke cigarettes, or buy cold beverages from the two vending machines. Taiwanese kids are fond of soft drinks, a passion that turns to a full blown addiction when exposed to the rigid control, long contraband list, and high stress of basic training. Not to mention the only other beverage option being the warm, salty drinking water in our canteens. The vending machines were replenished every couple of days, but were almost always sold out within a few hours of being resupplied. The vending machines and the drinks they sold, however humble, were a rare connection to the outside world that we happily availed ourselves to whenever possible. Consequently, vending machine use was also one of the privileges our superiors repeatedly threatened to take away in the event of bad behavior.
Our brief respite (all rest times are too short as far as the troops are concerned) over, we hurriedly donned our BDUs, helmets, and utility belts (with canteen hooked on). Folding stools in hand, we hastily rejoined the rest of the company outside already standing in formation, with the captain commanding our company standing in front, ready to address the troops.
After the requisite pre-assembly pleasantries from the squad leaders ("DID I AUTHORIZE YOU TO SCRATCH YOUR EARS? I SAID STAND AT ATTENTION!"), we formed up into three platoons, each consisting of three companies. Megaphone in hand, the captain spoke and those of us positioned at the flanks of the formation strained to hear what he had to say.
"Today we begin your first real day of training. We will begin with basic drill commands teaching you how march in formation without looking like a mob of delinquents. Platoon 1 will proceed to... Platoon 2 will proceed to the front of the building for ... Platoon 3 will...""What did he just say?""Uh, I can't make out what he's saying. Where are we supposed to-""... any questions? Now move to your assigned positions!""What? Where are we supposed to go?""Did you hear?""No, I-""QUIT TALKING AND START MOVING!", one of the squad leaders yelled."Where are we supposed to-""DO YOU HAVE FORESKIN GROWING ON YOUR EARS? MOVE!"
And thus came our first exposure to what would become a common occurrence throughout basic training - communications failures. The ad hoc solution to this boils down to: "Follow the guy next to you. (And hope that he knows what he's doing)"
Each day in basic training is broken down into class periods, punctuated by short 5 minute breaks, as well as lunch around 1130, followed by a nap till 1300, more classes till dinner time at 1730, then evening classes till around 2100. The day ends with evening roll call, then a brief period of shower/free time until lights out at 2200.
Basic drill (基本教練) consists of the basic commands for assembling, marching in formation, and saluting. Classes in basic drill are a continuous occurrence throughout basic training, and are typically noted for being long, and rather dull repetitions of marching, about face, left / right face, followed by more marching. Actions considered deviant or otherwise unsatisfactory typically result in further repetition.
As far as the Army is concerned, obsessive compulsive disorder is a plus in these matters, and I've long since lost track of the number of times everyone in our platoon was ordered to redo our last move because a single individual didn't have their fingers lined up with their pant seams while at attention / rotated in the wrong direction / moved the wrong foot.
"QUIT KICKING UP YOUR HEELS WHEN DOING AN ABOUT FACE! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, A HONG KONG COP?" (「向後轉幹嘛甩腿？你以為你是香港警察喔？」)
After an hour of this under the hot tropical sun and steamy humidity of southern Taiwan wearing our steel helmets and long sleeved heavy cotton/polyester BDUs, you can understand why the threat of more basic drill practice is often employed as a punishment in basic training and beyond.
After performing yet another formation march around the company parade grounds, one of the drill sergeants blew his whistle for the platoon to assemble. Facing us, he produced a small folded card that would accompany us during our entire time in basic training.
"This is the Hydration Card (飲水記錄卡) that you have each been issued. You will always carry this card with you, and will record the amount of water that you will be ordered to drink from your canteens at specified times throughout the day. On my command you will repeat and execute the following orders to drink 300 c.c.s of water."
We stared at each other in resigned silence: Great, another SOP to memorize.
"Retrieve canteens!" (「取水壺！」)"Retrieve canteens!", we repeated."LOUDER! And hold the canteens in front of your faces with both hands!""Retrieve canteens!", we repeated again, holding our canteens before our faces as if we were making an offering of our salty metallic tasting canteen water to the gods."Open lids!"(「打開瓶蓋！」)"Open lids!", we shouted, unscrewing the lids with our right hands."Post drill hydration..." (「操課後飲水...」) He paused, "Say the amount!""300 c.c.s!", we yelled, as if our lives depended on it."Drink!"(「喝水！」)
As he watched us chugging down the contents of our canteens, the drill sergeant pointed again to our Hydration Cards - a fairly new development prompted by too many past cases of new recruits passing out from heat stroke.
"After hydrating, you will record the prescribed amount of water on your card at the matching time slot. The first member of your squad will collect your hydration cards every night before lights out, and turn them in to your squad leaders for review. Anyone who fails to do so will be severely punished. (This would be the cause of many a last minute pre-lights out scramble) I do not care if you actually drink that amount, but you will record it on your card. At the top slot for each day you will record your weight and body temperature. Since there are close to 150 of you, you will record whatever you feel is correct, if you actually feel like you have a fever, then notify me and we'll deal with it then."
The latter order was later amended to "Any value between 36 - 37.5 degrees Celsius" after some genius put down a body temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.
"Finally, at the end of the day, you will draw a circle at the top of your card if you made a successful bowl movement, or an X if you did not. If you go for 3 days without passing stool, tell your squad leader. I have a nice little pill here guaranteed to cure what ails you."
This happened more often than you might think. Between the hectic daily schedule and constant pressure, its easy to go for an extended period of time without clearing your bowels.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Naturally, the pocket notebooks have to be emblazoned with the characters for "success".
I was awakened early the next morning by my still sleeping bunkmate kicking me in the face through the mosquito netting that lined our respective beds (our drill instructors had arranged us so that adjacent new recruits slept head to foot, in order to keep us from breathing in each others faces as we slept). A few seconds later, my wristwatch alarm that I had set for 5AM went off, followed by several others from the surrounding bunks. Slowly, we awoke one by one, sitting up groggily staring at the scene around us. Oh yeah, I'm here now. Official wake up time is 5:30 isn't it? Better get to work before that rolls around.
Reaching for the heavy white blanket that I'd somehow kicked off during the night, I started to fold it in the method prescribed by retired military people I'd talked to before coming in. Fold in half along the long edge, quarter folds at the front and back, then fold everything in half again to create a nice rectangular package. Tug corners to smooth out the wrinkles. Tuck in the corners of the folds with your finger or a toothbrush handle to create nice sharp edges. Use of water to create sharp corners is optional. Done.
As I contemplated whether I should handle my mosquito netting the same way, the loudspeakers crackled to life:
"The current time is 0530 hours. All new recruits out of bed."
A gaggle of drill instructors marched down the center aisle of our barracks. "This is day 2 of your adjustment period" one of them announced. "We will now demonstrate how you will be required to fold and arrange your bedding." He glanced at my meticulously folded block of oversized tofu. "Unfold that, you did it wrong."
Fold in thirds along the long edge, then fold in thirds the other way, leaving enough space between the folds so the whole thing stands up as a rectangular block. Tug out the wrinkles and tuck in the corners to form nice right angles. Water and toothbrush handle not necessary. Handle the mosquito netting the old way (bunkmate assistance required). Place folded mosquito netting atop pillow placed on edge of mattress. Place the folded blanket behind that. Done.
The loudspeaker blared again: "The current time is now 0545 hours. All new recruits assemble outside on the company assembly grounds in gym outfits. You have 1 minute. Move."
The fifty some odd new recruits in the same barracks as me dashed towards the exit in a mass frenzy punctuated by swearing, and the occasional bang from someone falling out of a top bunk in what is known colloquially as "taking the elevator" (坐電梯). This was followed by running around in panicked circles on the basketball court outside as we tried to find our designated positions in one of the 9 half remembered squads from the previous day.
"ATTENTION!" The sergeant of the day yelled into a bullhorn.
"Attention!" came the ragged cry from a few people. Oh shit, we were supposed to repeat that, weren't we?
"WHEN I CALL YOU TO ATTENTION, YOU WILL REPEAT THE WORD AND STOP MOVING! ATTENTION!!"
"ATTENTION!", we yelled.
"It has been over 3 minutes and you still aren't properly assembled. Did you bump your heads and forget about everything from yesterday? Figure out the recruit at the head of your squad (班頭) and line up after him by number. Now go back into your barracks and reassemble when I give the order! You have 10 seconds to get out of my sight!"
I'll spare you the details of what happened next, but I'm sure you can imagine the controlled chaos that transpired. About 5 minutes later we were finally assembled back outside in our designated order.
"Mess squad, break formation!", one of the sergeants yelled. "Everyone else, assemble in horizontal formation!"
As the dozen or so of us in the mess squad were led away by our squad leaders, hauling stainless steel baskets full of trays and utensils, I turned back and saw the rest of our company positioning themselves for pushups. The night before, our squad leaders had told us that given our extra work load as mess squad, we would be given certain privileges as compensation. Apparently, being exempt from this morning's physical training (PT) was one of them. I was actually somewhat disappointed, having done some previous preparation before starting basic.
My disappointment at not participating in PT was short-lived. We soon arrived at the ground level exit to the battalion kitchen where the cooks (also soldiers) were already rolling out breakfast.
"The dumb-waiter is down again today" our squad leader announced. "You will carry the food for our company downstairs to the mess hall by hand. Be careful not to drop anything, and watch out for the stairs, they're slippery. Last class we had a recruit end up with 2nd degree burns all over after he slipped while hauling a cauldron of soup."
Two by two, we carried giant stainless steel cauldrons filled with rice porridge, scalding hot tea, and the other breakfast side dishes down the ramp from the kitchen, around the building, and down the steep flight of stairs to the basement mess hall. I soon realized why the mess squad would be frequently excused from PT... we already got plenty of upper body exercise hauling food and utensils for 100+ new recruits as well as their officers and NCOs three times a day.
After setting the utensils for the officers and NCOs, as well as the communal pots of beverages and rice at the table for each squad, we hurriedly slurped up what breakfast we could, while the projection TV at the end of the mess hall was turned on to broadcast Taiwan Television (our only source of outside information while on base). Watered down soy / rice milk or scalding hot tea was the norm beverage-wise. This was followed by scrambled eggs mixed with corn or diced ham, pickles, and fried gluten (麵筋). The rice porridge was occasionally mixed with egg or canned corn (I've never seen anyone add either one of these to rice porridge outside the military). No need for the usual required mechanical eating movements here that everyone else had to abide by - another fringe benefit of being in the mess squad.
"The company is here, ASSUME YOUR POSITIONS!", someone yelled.
Four of us wearing white aprons, caps, and sleeve covers charged towards the pots of food, which had been placed in the hallway leading into the mess hall. Troops from the other companies in our brigade sharing the mess hall charged with similar tasks ran to their respective stations, as lines of tray bearing recruits appeared.
Unsure of what we were expected to do, we ladled food onto the trays of the new recruits marching in as best we could.
"Watch your portion sizes", one of our squad leaders said, "if you run out, then everyone else goes hungry."
Eventually, we would get better at estimating portion sizes. But during our first outing, the first recruits to arrive while the pots appeared to be full ended up with larger portions. Recruits arriving in the middle ended up with less, as we experienced a "Holy shit, where does this line end?"-moment; while recruits near the end ended up with their trays overflowing with surplus food as we realized we'd been too conservative with the portions as the end of the line came into sight.
Sorry. We're new at this too, in case you didn't notice.
All too soon, the new recruits finished breakfast, and the company filed out of the mess hall to wash their own trays. The mess squad was responsible for washing the communal pots, as well as the utensils for the officers and NCOs. As well as mopping the mess hall floor and wiping the tables. And hauling the food waste out to the rubbish pile for resale as pig feed.
By the time we managed to finish all this, the usual after-breakfast break time that the other recruits were enjoying was over.
The rest of the three day adjustment period passed in much the same way. Mundane administrative chores punctuated by the early departure of those of us in the mess squad near mealtimes. We worked on our thick stacks of forms in between group and individual photo shoots, chest x-rays, cleaning, and optional blood donation. Almost everyone volunteered to donate blood simply to spend half an hour in the air conditioned bloodmobile sipping the juice boxes offered to donors.
"No rush", one of the new recruits sitting next to me told the civilian nurse drawing our blood, who nodded knowingly.
On the morning of the fourth day, our real training began.
Our company assembled in formation on the parade ground in full BDUs (which we had slept in the night before) along with the new recruits from the rest of the brigade to take the formal oath, followed by a long address from a brigadier general who had dropped by especially for the occasion.
The rest of the mess squad and I watched this from the sidelines, as we hauled the day's breakfast down to the mess hall yet again. For us, there was no oath, no formal pep talk from the commanding general. When the rest of the company finally trooped down into the mess hall half an hour later, the tables were set, and we were at our designated positions wearing the white caps and aprons.
A few of my fellow mess squad troops congratulated each other on our "good luck". This sucks, I thought.
Sunday, June 05, 2011
I have heard that basic training has been described as "Hurry up and wait". The hours that followed our first arrival on base certainly lived up to that description. Our squad leaders - a mix of sergeants and a few corporals (I later learned that the sergeants were career military, while the corporals were experienced draftees), hurriedly shuffled us between what seemed to be a maze of buildings, where upon arrival, we spent long moments sitting outside on our stools filling out paperwork that ranged from background checks ("List the names, addresses, and contact information of 3 male, and 3 female friends", "Do you have any direct relations living or working in Mainland China?"), to medical questionnaires ("Do you have any long term medical ailments?", "How would you classify your personality?"), and more practical matters ("Who do you wish to list as the main beneficiary of your military life insurance policy?").
With all the new recruits being shuffled around base, it took an effort not to get separated from one's squad, or to avoid losing any of the items we were hauling around.
"You're lucky that nowadays the brass have mandated a 3 day adjustment period for all new recruits", one of the sergeants warned as another hospital gown-wearing new recruit belatedly rushed back into the medical examination room for his gym clothes that he'd forgotten to put back on. "If you think this is hard, wait till the real work begins."
Finally, after yet another trip to wait outside yet another room containing yet another bored looking officer with more forms to fill out, our squad leaders led us all back to the basketball court outside our company barracks. Steel racks containing steel utensils sat at the front.
Ten dozen surgical mask-wearing young men with a variety of hairdos... mostly the shaggy "birdsnest hair" (鳥巢頭) that seems to be all the rage these days, stared at each other, shuffling from foot to foot. "We sure don't look like an army", I thought, "and this sure doesn't feel like how you always expect boot camp to be".
One of the sergeants spoke up: loud enough to be heard, but still no real yelling. "You will now proceed to the front squad by squad, where you will receive your mess kit. You will use the same items during your entire stay here, so don't lose anything."
Proceeding one by one to the head of the line, we each received a steel bowl, steel chopsticks, and a steel tray etched with "ARMY" (陸軍), or in several cases "TAIWAN GARRISON COMMAND" (警總) - the long defunct martial law era secret police agency disbanded in 1992. It is perhaps telling of how far Taiwan has come from those days that most of my fellow new recruits had never heard of the once feared state security body, or their creative applications of toothbrushes and car batteries to "subversive elements".
In other good news, the modern ROC military is really into recycling.
We were once again paraded single file into the battalion mess hall, where faceless troops wearing white aprons and baseball caps dumped portions of food onto our trays, before we were randomly led to one of the many square tables running up and down the length of the mess hall, each one with steel pots of rice, a watery soup-like liquid, and smaller steel bowls of pickles, and something resembling meat broth (滷汁).
"Remember" my friends had told me, "the military views mealtime as a hazing ritual. Act in groups when ordered, sit straight. They're expecting to nail you the first day when you don't know all the rules."
Armed with this bit of intelligence, I braced myself for a chewing out as several of the new recruits simply dropped their trays on the table, pulled out their stools, and started eating. To my surprise, none came.
"Sit down and listen up while you eat", a sergeant said, "I'm only going to explain this once."
He sat down at our table, his back remaining ramrod straight. "In the future, you will set your trays down at the table and pull out your benches silently as a group, only when ordered. Pass me the rice pot."
The rice pot made its way over in front of him, he filled his bowl methodically, placing the bowl below the outside rim of the pot. "You will not stand up until the meal is over. If you want something, ask your fellow soldiers to pass it over to you. When filling your bowl with rice or soup, never hold your bowl above the rim of the pot - that makes it look as if you're planning to dump food back in".
Holding the filled bowl in his left hand, he picked up his chopsticks and continued: "Your chopsticks are only for moving food between your tray, your bowl, and your mouth. When you are chewing your food, your chopsticks are to remain still. If your jaws are moving, your chopsticks should not be."
He then proceeded to eat methodically in a method befitting a robot. The rest of us attempted to emulate him, often failing. Till then, I'd never noticed how often I tend to shovel food with my chopsticks while chewing the previous bite.
The food that first night was representative of what we would be subsisting on for the rest of our stay in basic training. A thin cut of pork with the consistency of cardboard boiled in what appeared to be a watered down, fluorescent yellow curry, some limp green vegetable - boiled, something that looked like potatoes and canned corn boiled in the same curry sauce as the meat, and a few slices of dried tofu with a few crumbs of ground mystery meat. "On average, we have a daily food budget of about NT$30 per person here", the captain commanding our training company had said, "So its not haute cuisine, but it'll keep you alive".
As I contemplated whether I was authorized to dump the corn into my rice bowl from my tray to avoid having to pick up individual kernels, the sergeant finished his meal.
"When you are finished" he said, "Place your chopsticks back onto the largest space on your tray in front of you, then place your rice bowl upside down on top of it to signal to your fellow new recruits that you are done eating. When you have all finished, you will leave as a group as ordered by your table leader. Today, I will give the orders."
"All rise!", he ordered.
Everyone rose to their feet, with the sound of benches grinding against the tiled floor.
"You will rise together, and silently!", the sergeant said. And in what would become a refrain in basic training: "Redo that last action!"
We rose, trying not to bump into our benches, while stepping over them.
"Replace benches!", the sergeant ordered.
We shoved our benches back under the table as quietly as we could, and stood back at attention.
"Did I tell you to come back to attention?", the sergeant said. "Redo that last move. Keep your hands on the benches when you're done pushing them back, and look towards the person giving the orders so he knows when you're all ready. Do not come to attention till I order you to."
We pushed the benches back, kept our hands on the benches, and started back sideways at the sergeant from our bent over positions.
"Come to attention!" he ordered. "Retrieve trays!"
After another 5 minutes of breaking down that particular activity into its constituent parts, we were finally led out of the mess hall to the line of sinks outside our barracks, where we were each issued a piece of sponge the size of a postage stamp (for kids of my generation or younger, this is about the size of an SD memory card). Proceeding slowly forward, we dumped any remaining food into the first bin (to be sold to nearby farmers as pig feed - Taiwan is very much into garbage reduction: The pigs eat our scraps, then we eat the pigs), then scooped up soapy water from the second bin, before finally scrubbing our utensils in the sink.
Maybe it was the result of the watered down detergent or maybe it was the tiny sponges, but either way, our tableware retained a distinctly greasy feel throughout our entire stay. Its kind of romantic if you think about it: lubricating your utensils with food scraps for future generations of new recruits.
The trays went back into the steel baskets for each squad, carefully lined up in numerical order. The bowls, chopsticks, and sponges went back into our lockers.
Eventually, we were led back into the mess hall, from which the communal pots had suddenly disappeared. A quartet of middle aged ladies wielding hair clippers stood at one end, rapidly shearing the hair off an endless line of new recruits, lined up like lambs at the slaughterhouse. Everyone got the treatment, from the kid with the most elaborate salon styled hair, to the ones who'd already gone through the trouble of shaving their heads beforehand. There were no combs on the clippers, no wash, no blow dry, and no brush at the end.
Relieved of our hair, and still wearing our surgical masks, it was now all but impossible to tell people apart from one another.
"Squad 3, assemble!", one of the drill instructors shouted. We were led back up to the sinks to face one of our two corporal squad leaders, as well as what seemed like a mountain of dirty pots, pans, and vats. "So that's where all the communal stuff went", I thought.
The corporal looked at us grimly. "Squad 3", he said, "you have been selected as the mess squad (打飯班) for our company. For the duration of your stay in basic training, you will be responsible for setting up, clearing, and cleaning the mess hall, as well as for washing all the communal utensils."
The dozen or so of us started at each other in the fading light, as well as back towards the barracks where the rest of our company was seated out in front, still filling out paperwork.
"I'm warning you ahead of time", the corporal said, "you will have much more work to do and less rest time, compared to the other new recruits in your company. Now get to work."
It was another hour before we finished, and another three hours after that of other random work, before dashing to the shower room for 2 minute combat showers (6 showers shared between close to four dozen new recruits), meticulously arranging our toiletries and personal items under our beds (toothbrushes must be placed in our metal cups, pointed towards the front of the room), and standing at attention for bedtime inspection, before we hurriedly crawled under our mosquito-netting into bed for lights out. The footsteps of our squad leaders echoed from the walkway as they periodically patrolled the barracks to make sure we were all lying in bed, as our first day finally drew to a close.
Friday, May 20, 2011
Longtian (隆田) is a small town nestled amongst rice fields and mango orchards in rural Tainan, along the main eastern rail line. The town would be wholly unremarkable for one of its size, except for its close proximity to the army bases at Guantian（官田）, Danei（大內） , and Shinjhong（新中）.
Taiwan has changed a great deal over the past two decades, and the ROC military has been no exception. Far from the old "Reconquer the Mainland"（反攻大陸）martial law days, the armed forces have since been de-politicized and placed under civilian control. The armed forces have also moved into a defensive role, with the army establishing reserve units patterned on the U.S. Army National Guard. Amongst other things, the bases near Longtian are home to several of these army reserve infantry brigades charged with providing basic training for new Army and Air Force recruits.
Longtian StationAs our train pulled into the station in the early afternoon, I stumbled out into the bright southern Taiwan sunshine and heat, along with a few hundred other new Air Force recruits from around the north. Led by our flag wielding civilian handlers, we were hurriedly escorted out of the station into a fleet of waiting busses. Safely inside the air conditioned motorcoaches, the fleet of busses rumbled down broad avenues running through rice fields, while the onboard TVs blared. Outside, the pastoral scenes were broken occasionally by small shops hawking stir-fry (熱炒), karaoke, and agricultural equipment.
The town of Longtian. Any contact with the town was incidental on the way to and back home from base.
Eventually, the busses pulled up to a gate in a long concrete wall guarded by rifle wielding soldiers. "We're there!", someone shouted, as everyone ripped open the curtains to peek outside as we drove in.
Driving onto base, our busses passed between three story faux-brick facade buildings, each surrounding a basketball court now filled with folding metal stools topped with white drawing boards. Some of the stools were already filled by other luggage carrying kids in civilian clothes. Trees dotted the scene along with somewhat ornate looking lamp posts. Except for the large central parade area and the green camouflage Humvees parked along the roads, we might as well have been looking at dormitories on move-in day from any decently sized university.
Our bus pulled to a stop before one of the buildings. An army officer wearing camouflage fatigues (the military's working clothes of choice) climbed aboard. 45 new recruits braced ourselves for the expected chewing out that you see in the movies...
Instead, the officer pulled out a spray bottle of disinfectant and box of disposable surgical masks, one of which he promptly donned. "Hands out for disinfection!" he said matter-of-factly, as he walked down the aisle distributing the masks. "Put your surgical masks on and do not take them off until ordered. We don't want one of you making everyone else sick."
Eventually, we were shuttled off the bus to the stools lined up in front of one of the buildings, each of which was a barracks housing a single company （連） of new recruits. Underneath the drawing board on each stool was a large brown envelope containing a stack of forms. Remember, I was told by my friends who had been through before, you will spend your first few days filling out mounds of paperwork.
Another soldier walked in front of us wearing a yellow armband bearing the words "Duty Squad Leader" (值星班長). I strained to see the rank insignia on his collar: two thin chevrons atop one thick chevron: a sergeant（中士）. What happened next has been blurred in my memory by a month of similar events, but the main gist of it should be familiar to anyone who has been through it.
"Pick up your stools, drawing boards, luggage, and form up into nine squads facing me!" （「在我面前排成九個班！」）, he said in a firm, but not especially menacing voice.
Roughly ten dozen new recruits in civvies shuffled around thoroughly confused by what was just said. After a few more moments of confused movement with no end in sight, the sergeant spoke again:
"When I say 'squads', I mean rows. Now form up into 9 squads facing me." he said, this time with a slight edge in his voice.
Ten dozen new recruits started to move.
"Did I tell you to move yet?" he said, the volume of his voice going up.
Ten dozen new recruits froze.
"You do not move until I order you to move!" he said. "Now move!"
In physics, seemingly chaotic motions can lead to the eventual formation of coherent patterns. Somehow in the running, pushing, and shoving, 9 lines started to form.
"Attention!"（「注意！」） the sergeant said.
Everyone looked up.
"When I say 'Attention', you will stop whatever it is you are doing and repeat the word 'Attention'! Now Attention!" he said.
"Attention", came the ragged cry from the confused masses.
Sarge somehow conveyed disgust without changing his overall expression. "Do you think you're at summer camp or something?" he said. "Attention!"
"Attention!" came the reply.
"Attention!" he repeated.
"ATTENTION!" everyone yelled.
"Is forming into 9 squads really that difficult?" he said. "I want the same number of men in each squad, arranged from shortest at the rear to tallest at the front. You have 10 seconds. Now move!"
In the ensuing confusion, I dashed for the front end of one of the squads near the front. After some jockeying and further rearrangement, I found myself randomly positioned as the second member of the third squad.
I didn't know it at the time, but this seemingly random arrangement would end up having a massive impact on my experience in basic training.
Seated in our new positions, we waited to see what would happen next.
The sergeant spoke again: "Now listen carefully. On the second floor, you will be issued your uniforms and accessories. There are tables with sample camouflage fatigue hats, shirts, as well as combat boots of various sizes. You will first determine which size fits you for each of these. You will then report these sizes to the soldier in the room at the end, who will issue you the supplies. You will then return here with the supplies. Perform this action squad by squad. Replace the sample items neatly as you found them. Now move."
Fatigues are work clothes meant for hard physical work. When not dressed in your gym outfit you will be wearing fatigues. The conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader.
Doing as we were told, we dutifully reported our hat, shirt, and shoe sizes to the soldiers standing in the room at the end. We were issued a metal washbasin filled with a steel cup, three new olive drab undershirts (Proudly Made in Taiwan), three white underpants, a green camouflage web belt, a long and short set of dark blue sport pants, and a red white and blue sports jacket. Further piled atop this were two sets of fatigues in tropical camouflage pattern, a camouflage cap with the ROC's white sun and blue sky emblem, a steel canteen and cover, a set of new combat boots wrapped in plastic, and a new pair of white running shoes in a blue shoebox bearing the insignia of the Ministry of National Defense.
All of this was heaped into a large mound in our arms that we struggled (often unsuccessfully), to carry back to our seats downstairs in a single load.
"It took you all long enough", the sergeant said at the end of the process. "We're all running late since you ladies decided to take your time getting here. Inside the barracks, you will find your bunks and lockers arranged by number. There will be four squads in the room on each level. You will carry all your things into your rooms. For now, throw everything on your bed. Change into the gym outfit you were just issued, then report back here in formation. For now, don't bother with the running shoes. You have 5 minutes. Move!"
Following another mess of running, collisions, and accessories flying everywhere, we dashed into our respective rooms. Inside, we found what was to be our home for the next month: two rows of narrow bunk beds, topped with individual mattresses barely a foot and a half wide, and flanked by tall steel lockers. A heavy blanket and mosquito netting were neatly folded onto the pillow of each spot.
Throwing what were now our only worldly possessions on our beds, we hurriedly ripped our gym outfits and olive drab undershirts out of their coverings. Donning our new outfits, there was no time for contemplation as we dashed back outside towards our new lives.