Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Friday, May 20, 2011

九個班: 9 Squads

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 Station
As 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.

"This is the middle of nowhere", one of the Taipei city kids grumbled as others dozed off.

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.

“保護我們的台北家園” - "Defend our Taipei homes"

In old war movies, you almost always see that scene of the emotional sendoff of military-bound young men by their families and girlfriends at the train station, the "with your shield or on it"-speech, complete with tears, flags, and that lone figure chasing the train as it pulls out of the station to an uncertain fate.

On my induction day, the train station part was real.

Our assembly point at the North 2 Gate of Taipei Main Station is one of those places you usually walk through without really paying much attention to. Induction Day was like any other morning with commuters and travelers hurrying on their way. But today, there was an additional contingent of middle aged men and women wearing red vests and yellow arm bands from the draft boards of district offices across Taipei. A couple dozen young men in various states of resignation milled around. Most came alone, a few came with family or girlfriends. Some were bespectacled student looking types, while others with shaggy manes of dyed hair milled around outside smoking cigarettes. A few had even already shaved the hair off their heads to the stubble that the military prefers for its new recruits. All wore the yellow passes issued by the draft board, bearing the markings of their home district, and "Air Force".

At 8:30AM, an authoritative looking man with a bullhorn ordered everyone to assemble by district. 12 red vested civil servants held up signs, each bearing the name of one of the 12 administrative districts of Taipei. We queued up, hauling our luggage with us. I silently congratulated myself on my decision to reduce my worldly possessions to a single backpack containing a jacket and a change of clothes. "You won't need anything else", my friends who had gone through the process told me, "you'll get everything you need once you get there."

Once properly assembled, two distinguished looking gentleman stepped before us. Although older, their upright poise and clipped tones marked them as retired military. One of them picked up a microphone and introduced himself as director of the Department of Compulsory Military Service for Taipei...

"Before I joined the civil service, I served for over two decades in the Army. I have been stationed on the outlying islands, including Kinmen, when hostilities occurred regularly, lone sentries were under constant threat from Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) frogmen, and we were under orders to shoot to kill any intruders after dark. In my time, the term of service was two years. Today, you will be required to serve only one year or less, and will not face the same dangers that I did when I was a soldier..."

We remained silent, everyone in Taiwan has heard horror stories involving the outlying islands in the 1960s and 70s, along with the 12 hour boat rides, and infrequent leave.

"Although you will spend your first month receiving basic training from the Army, all of you will be serving in the Air Force. You may ask, where is the Air Force? Yes, the Air Force is stationed at air bases across the country, but that is far from all. The Air Force operates the radar stations on high mountains, coastlines, and the outlying islands that comprise our entire early warning network. The Air Force operates the surface to air missile battalions located across the country on constant alert, ready to defend our skies against enemy aircraft on a moment's notice. As draftees, you may go your entire military career without ever seeing an F-16, Mirage 2000, or IDF fighter jet take off. Many of you may be hoping for easy jobs in support positions as secretaries, cooks, or drivers. But most of you will be the ones operating our missiles and radar sites, and guarding our facilities.

As a draftee, I will probably never see this in person.

Even today, you will face danger. The guns you will carry on sentry duty are loaded, and the bayonets fixed upon them are razor sharp. The missiles are heavy, and their exhaust can burn through metal. Wherever you may end up, you will find that you no longer enjoy the freedom that you enjoyed as a civilian. Every action you take will be observed and controlled. Some of you with girlfriends going in may find yourselves without one when you are discharged. For many of you, this will be the first time that you will be living away from home for an extended period of time. I urge you to persevere, do your best, and remember that no matter what happens - you will be discharged in a year or less."

The generation of Taiwanese kids born during the 1980s and 90s are often referred to as the "strawberry generation", stereotyped as being self-absorbed, pretty looking, incapable of rough handling and easily bruised... kind of like strawberries.

"And as a final parting gift, I hereby present you all with NT$100 calling cards, so you may contact your family and friends when you arrive on base. I have always believed that Taipei kids make for the finest soldiers in the country. So I urge you to go forth, adapt to your new life, and thank you for defending our homes in Taipei."

At this point, two preselected draftees marched to the front to receive calling cards with a snappy salute for the cameramen. Photo-ops are a universal thing, apparently. Even if the end played into the prevalent stereotype of Taipei-ites as being incapable of noticing anything outside of Taipei.

"Thank you for your devoted service in the military. The citizens of Taipei are proud of you!" (Here's an NT$100 phone card, which will give you approximately 2 minutes of talk time to any cell phone in the country!)

Herded down to Platform 3A, we made for a conspicuous looking bunch sitting in formation, supervised by our civil servant handlers. Other travelers looked on in curiosity as an empty 2nd class passenger train pulled into the station. "Attention passengers, " the loudspeaker blared, "please do not board the special express train at platform 3A." As we boarded along with our handlers, and as the train pulled out of station, two or three proud parents followed along the platform waving and snapping pictures.

"Well, at least that part of the movies is true", I thought, as we all sat silently contemplating our shared destiny for the next month.

Our train stopped at major stations along the way south, picking up more groups of similarly escorted, silent, young men. Some carried backpacks presented by local governments. Some cities helpfully provided generic brand baseball caps with which we could hide our soon to be shorn heads.

The usual railroad bento boxes of pork chops and rice were distributed, and were again, eaten in silence as our train continued on south...