"Hurry up, they've already started drawing straws!"
Another day at the Shilin District Office. Another step in the process of getting drafted. The 10th floor auditorium of the district office is packed with thongs of young men and their anxious looking parents. The middle aged ladies running the Department of Compulsory Military Service who were at the medical exam weeks ago are all there again. But for the first time, I see military personnel manning the check-in desk - an army lieutenant colonel along with a bunch of NCOs, and a couple of MPs.
Like anyone would try to make a break for it at this stage.
Taiwan has had a military draft going since the 1950s, back when the Cold War was still hot. Today, China's invasion threats have gone from the human waves of yesteryear to a ballistic missile buildup, while Taiwan has gone from dictatorship to democracy. One problem hasn't changed though - how do you distribute all the draftees fairly among the service branches? Lots of people want to get into the air force (considered an easy assignment), and few want to end up in the marines (at one point, marine boot camp graduation involved swimming from Kinmen to China and returning with a severed PLA ear... or so the rumor mill goes).
The solution that was settled upon has become a rite of passage for Taiwanese males - drawing straws. Even with the introduction of civilian alternative service for folks who can't pass the physical, the practice still continues. Everyone gets a service branch, no one can complain about favoritism. This year, the ratio for the general pool is fairly typical: 75% Army, 8% Navy, 8% Marines, and 9% Air Force.
"But, I was told to come in at 11AM.""Are you doing alternative service?""No, I'm classified as Type 2."
But as you might expect, the military in Taiwan has its own needs in terms of personnel qualifications. In the U.S., incoming enlisted personnel take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) exam to determine their level of competency. Taiwan deals with this problem by loading the dice for draftees with certain qualifications...
There are three separate pools as far as drawing straws is concerned. Type 1 is the maritime group (100% Navy), Type 2 is the aviation group (70% Air Force, 20% Army, 10% Navy), Type 3 is the general pool. Draftees are distributed by occupation or college degree: merchant seamen, maritime academy graduates, maritime engineers, and oceanographers go under Type 1. Type 2 includes commercial pilots, aviation mechanics, aerospace and aeronautical engineers, atmospheric and space scientists, meteorologists, and plasma physicists. Everyone else is Type 3.
"Oh, there are only 4 of you this time. Have a seat and we'll call you once the general pool is done."
I walk into the auditorium where the process is playing out for the general pool. The middle aged ladies of the district office sit at a long table at the front. A large clear plastic box sits in the middle of the table with a hole in the top. A draftee thrusts his hand into the box, pulls out a straw, and hands it to a lady with a microphone behind the box.
"Number 141, Army."
The young man is silent as the straw is removed from the remaining pool, and the next draftee moves up for his turn. There are 141 Army straws out of the 188 total for the general pool today.
"Number 142, Army.""Number 143, Army.""Number 144, Marines"
The marine-to-be grimaces, while a palpable sense of relief spreads throughout the line of draftees behind him. One less Marine straw.
A middle aged lady walks over after overhearing my earlier conversation:
"What's this Type 2 thing you said you were in?""Oh, the aviation group.""Wait, so you're all Air Force? How did you get into that?""No no no... we just have a higher chance of drawing an Air Force straw. I studied aerospace engineering so-""My son studied accounting, why isn't he in this?""Well they should already know his degree-""Wait what? I didn't know about this. I told them he studied accounting..."
I had a thing for space and aviation as a kid, like most kids do. Unlike most kids, I never grew out of it and choose to study astrophysics in college (instead of pre-med or computer science), and aerospace engineering in grad school. The typical reaction I got from people in Taiwan upon learning of this was "Aerospace engineering? Who needs that in Taiwan?". Guess I've got the answer to that now...
"Type 2 draftees, report!"
A middle aged man with greying hair takes the mike at the front - the supervisor. The 188 draftees in the general pool are finally done. My turn now, along with the two other draftees in the group who actually showed up.
The supervisor gathers us around the box.
"Congratulations, you are all in the aviation group. No matter which service branch you end up drawing, your work will be related to aircraft!"
The three of us stare at each other, uncertain what to say. I've heard of Air Force draftees who ended up in air defense units, which were characterized as "the Army, but with surface to air missiles."
The supervisor opens a sealed brown envelope, containing three smaller sealed brown envelopes. He tears open the envelopes one by one to reveal identical looking small plastic tubes, each containing a rolled up piece of paper. The straws. He counts them out by service branch: 7 Air Force, 2 Army, 1 Navy. He hands me the microphone and points to the label on the big envelope:
"Read this please to confirm the contents are correct."
I pick up the microphone and hope my Taiwan accent is back...
"7 Air Force, 2 Army, 1 Navy."
"Sign your name and ID number on the envelope please, then have a seat."
He places the straws in the box, shakes up the contents, and hands the mike off to one of the ladies, who calls out our names and numbers, one by one. I'm last in line. The first guy draws Air Force. The second guy draws Navy.
I walk up and hand over my registration form and ID, and thrust my hand into the box. I hand the straw to the lady with the mike, who pulls the paper out of the tube...
"Number 4, Air Force."
The lady writes my name on the slip, stamps it with my seal, then hands me the receipt.
"Congratulations. We'll notify you 10 days before the start of basic training with further instructions."
The army guys at the check-in desk are gone now. The father of one of the other airmen-to-be walks over.
"Don't worry about it, it'll be a good experience. Say, where are you from?""Jiantan.""Jiantan? Interesting. You look so tall that I almost thought you were a foreigner.""Oh. Heh. Well, you know us kids these days.""Yes, I would have taken you for American-born, except that you haven't done anything with your hair."