Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Sunday, June 05, 2011

打飯班: Mess Squad

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.