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...