Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"現在時間0530...": "The current time is 0530 hours..."

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?


"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.

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