Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

全線預備! Ready down the line! - Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

"Morale sound off!" (「精神答數!」), the officer of the day yelled. We chanted out the cadence based on Chiang Kai-shek's list of qualities a good soldier should have, interspersed with shouts of "LOUDER!" (「大聲!」) from our drill sergeants...

「雄壯!」 (Honorable)

「威武!」 (Majestic)

「嚴肅!」 (Solemn)

「剛直!」 (Upright)

「安靜!」 (Silent - somewhat ironic since we were hollering at the top of our lungs)

「堅強!」 (Enduring)

「確實!」 (Precise)

「速決!」 (Expeditious

「沈著!」 (Taciturn)

「忍耐!」 (Persevering)

「機警!」 (Vigilant)

「勇敢!」 (Courageous)

It was a beautiful day in southern Taiwan. We marched down the road from base, passing through orchards of mango, guava, and bananas. Finally, we stopped at the calibration range beside the road, surrounded by trees, with paper targets pasted to wooden stands behind which was a large earthen barrier. Forming into waves of 12, we lined up behind our designated targets. Clearing our rifles as we had been instructed, we held our unloaded rifles upright in both hands with firing bolts locked. 

Our battalion CO, a lieutenant colonel, raised his bullhorn:

"Attention! Commencing live fire target practice in 5 minutes. All nonessential personnel clear the target area."

"Remember", our drill sergeant told us as he handed out foam earplugs, "we've been through the procedure dozens of times already. When called you will proceed to your firing alley. Do not load until instructed. You will fire two volleys of 3 shots each. After firing you will examine the target with the sergeant next to you. The recruit behind you will paste a new paper shooting target after you finish examining the results of your second volley. You will then take your used paper target, clear your rifle again, hand your bulletproof vest to the next recruit in line, and proceed to the analysis area off to the side. Also, the shock waves will be more intense as they bounce off the ground, so you can get away with using just a single earplug in your left ear."

A warning siren sounded. The battalion CO began issuing orders:

"Shooters proceed to firing points!" (「射手上把台!」)

I marched up to my firing point along with the rest of my wave of recruits and stood at attention, rifle held upright in both hands.

"Prepare for target practice in lying position!" (「臥射預備!」)

"Preparing for target practice in lying position!", we yelled, taking a step to the left and dropping onto the ground.

"Load three bullets, release bolt!" (「三發子彈,送上槍機!」)

"Loading three bullets, releasing bolt!", I yelled while inserting the filled magazine (oooh, heavy) the sergeant provided and pushing the bolt release catch on the side of our rifles. The drill sergeant next to me knocked the back of my helmet.

"What is this, a confidence building session? Shut up and just perform the moves.

"Ready on the left!" (「左線預備!」)

I flipped the selector switch from S to 1 (single shot), and tried sighting the target. 

"Ready on the right!" (「右線預備!」)

I sucked in a deep breath and tried to keep my hands steady as I extended my finger over the trigger.

"Ready along the line!" (「全線預備!」)

I slowly curled my finger backwards, the trigger gave easily enough as I slowly pulled. Odd, when is it going to-


My ears were momentarily overloaded as the rifle recoiled backwards. Up close, the sound was more of a very loud sharp popping noise, rather than the bang that I had been expecting.

Two more shots to go.



By the third shot, both my ears were ringing. I could barely hear the sergeant next to me as the cease fire order was issued. We all safety-ed our rifles, placed them down, then walked towards our targets as a range safety officer stood waving a red warning flag.

"Not bad. Your shots came pretty close to where they should be at this distance, and they're clustered closely together, so it looks like your aim hasn't shifted too much between shots."

Between the recoil, the loud pops, and the increasing blurriness in my right eye, I eventually settled in an odd sense of zen like calm as I fired off the second volley. 

I was jerked back into reality by the sergeant next to me slapping my helmet. 

"You're empty, you can stop pulling the trigger now."

We rose, picked up our rifles, did a left face, and walked off the firing points to the sides where we cleared our rifles. Carrying our target papers, we tried to listen as a sergeant came up with suggestions on how improve our shooting technique, while the rest of the company took their turns. There was a minor incident where one recruit apparently couldn't tell the difference between the 1 and the A on his selector switch, and ended up with the dubious honor of being the only person in our company who ever fired a rifle on full auto. 

I noticed absent-mindedly how the shots sounded less like pops, and more like dull thuds from a distance. High frequency acoustic waves are probably damped more easily than low frequency waves, the physicist in me thought.

Everything else went by in a blur. In no time at all, it seemed, we were marching back to base through a light rain, our rifles tucked under our ponchos.

"Keep marching. The CO has ordered the kitchen to make ginger soup for lunch today."

Ginger soup (薑湯) is a bit of a tradition in the ROC military whenever cold weather (by Taiwan standards) or getting drenched in the rain is involved. The procedure for making it is fairly simple, as our drill sergeants relayed it: take the oldest, most gnarled chunk of ginger root you can find. Whack it a few times with the blunt side of a heavy cleaver, then throw it into a pot of boiling water. Boil down till the liquid is reduced by about half. Saturate the final liquid with as much rock sugar as physically possible. The resulting concoction burns all the way down, and is a folk remedy for the common cold.

As lunchtime drew near, those of us in the mess squad marched down to the mess hall with the usual baskets of trays and utensils, as well as the large pots of food from the kitchen. A couple of us hauled down two large pots filled with the steaming hot ginger soup to be served to the company.

Unfortunately, news of the ginger soup was not successfully relayed to everyone in the mess squad. One overtly enthusiastic recruit promptly poured both pots out as food waste before they could be served.

The CO was not pleased, to say the least.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

全線預備! Ready down the line! - Part 1

You can repair almost anything with blousing rubbers (綁腿).

In Taiwan military parlance, certain individuals are referred to as "heavenly soldiers" (天兵, pronounced: tien bing), as in "Good heavens, where did this idiot come from?" This is often used as an adjective: "When did the head of 1st squad get so heavenly?" (「一班的班頭什麼時候變那麼天啊?」)

And they say that Asians don't get sarcasm...

By our fourth day of real training, the heavenly soldiers (technically we were all airmen, but the Chinese term doesn't distinguish between service branches) in our company were fairly well known to everyone. Like Dwa Koh (大軀, Taiwanese for Fatty) over in 1st squad who managed to break 3 folding stools by sitting on them: real heavenly. Or that small vegetarian kid who tried whistling at a female sergeant major in the mess hall the other day: if he were any more heavenly they'd be paying him with ghost money.

We weren't entirely convinced that they really were that dense. It was widely suspected that many knew full well what they were doing, but choose to act idiotically either out of personal amusement, or as a practical way of escaping extra duties after the drill sergeants classified them as unreliable idiots. They also provided the very useful function of deflecting the unwanted attention of our superiors from the rest of us.

It is always useful to have a few heavenly soldiers in your company to act as decoys for the ire of your superiors.

Our first day of live fire target practice came within a week of the start of our training. Up till then, we had endured countless drills on basic targeting, T65-K2 rifle maintenance, and the target practice SOP. The previous night, our CO had warned us that we would depart for the 25 meter calibration range first thing in the morning. "I strongly suggest that you sleep in your BDUs, and have everything ready to go once you wake up in the morning", he said.

The wake up call came as usual at 0530, though most of us had been up by 0510, folding our blankets and mosquito nets, arranging our bunks, and doing everything we could to prepare short of stepping onto the barracks floor (strictly forbidden before 0530). At the moment the wake up call sounded, I hit the floor, slipped into my boots, bloused my pant legs, and began the process of donning all the gear that we'd been issued since induction, mentally checking off the items as I strapped them on ...

M-1 helmet... check.

Gas mask in carrying pouch strapped to shoulder and waist... check.

Utility belt (now containing my canteen, two ammo pouches with four empty magazines, bayonet in scabbard, and a pouch with a copy of the ROC Army Basic Infantry Manual)... check.

ID badge with colored dot denoting the proper day of week... check.

Shovel jammed into the space between my belt and back... check.

Rain poncho stuffed behind the shovel... check. 

Folding chair hooked onto my belt over the canteen and infantry manual... check.

There was a loud crash, followed by cursing as the recruit we would dub Brother Elevator (電梯哥) fell out of his second level bunk, while folding his blanket. I moved on to the list of things to check before leaving the barracks...

Locker properly arranged in order of BDUs and workout uniform, with arms neatly tied behind... check.

Everything else thrown into the bottom of the locker and neatly covered with a towel draped from blousing rubbers hooked exactly 20 notches from the bottom... check.

No easily visible trash on the floor... check.

I joined the cascade of recruits dashing out of the barracks to muster on the company assembly grounds outside before the deadline at 0540.

"Hey, you did remember to shut the upper windows right?"

"What? I thought you did that!"

"No, I thought you did."

"幹!" (F__K!)

I dashed back inside the barracks past the last of the recruits charging in the opposite direction, clambered onto the top bunks, and slammed the upper windows closed in our squad's section. I then attempted to leap down gracefully onto the floor.

Unfortunately, the handle of my shovel caught on the top bunk, and I ended up landing on my side and rolling like a paratrooper hitting the ground, eventually coming to a stop at the feet of my squad leader.

"Get off the floor and get outside with everyone else!"

I dashed out the door just as the officer of the day started to take roll. One recruit from 1st squad was standing in front of the company with three fingers pointed in front of his face on one hand, and two on the other - he had apparently been shifting his weight from one leg to another, colloquially known as a 3/7-ths stance (三七步).

Swallowing a deep breath, I ran in front of the officer of the day, did an about right, and pulled off the snappiest salute I could manage...

"Reporting sir, New Recruit ___ requests to join formation." (「報告值星官,新兵___請示入列!」)

"Why are you late?"

"Reporting sir, I was closing the windows in the barracks."

He glared at me for what looked like an eternity, as the rest of the company stared on in silence. I prayed that he was in a good mood.

"Join ranks. And don't forget to close the windows in the future."

Relieved at having dodged this bullet, I joined formation. Our rifles were issued after a quick breakfast of stewed pork in steamed buns (割包). Slinging the guns over our shoulders, we marched off base towards the range.

Continued on Part 2.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


"Hey, why isn't G doing dishes with the rest of us?"

"Didn't you hear? He said he injured his leg or something, so he's in POA's office for further observation. He's temporarily excused from mess squad duties."

In Taiwan, every company level military unit has a resident psychologist / counselor. The counselor, almost always a junior officer, provides chaplain-like functions, personnel decisions based upon aptitude testing, morale boosting activities, and provides a sympathetic ear to the junior enlisted troops. In most units, the counselor acts as the good cop to the CO's (commanding officer) bad cop.

The counselor's official title is 輔導長 (lead counselor). In practice, he/she is almost universally referred to as "POA" (noun, pronounced "poe-eh"). I used to think that POA was an acronym for something. Turns out, like many slang terms in Taiwan, its an English transliteration of the Taiwanese nickname for the counselor: 輔仔.

I have seen good officers and lousy officers. However, my experience with the POA's at all my units has been universally positive. It is a thankless position - often dealing with draftees with various real or imagined physical or psychological disorders. I haven't yet met a POA who didn't at some point go the extra mile for the troops under their charge, many of whom in no way deserved the level of courtesy that POA showed them.

Our POA was a young female 1st Lieutenant, whom most people would describe as "kind of cute". As far as the new recruits in our company, deprived of cell phones, outside company, and subject to round-the-clock military discipline, were concerned, she might as well have been a supermodel. POA was almost always working overtime dealing with the various criseses associated with new conscripts - more than one of whom admitted faking some condition just to spend time excused from training, and in her presence.

Although as conscripts none of us were interested in a military career, most of us (either through pride, ego, or loyalty to our fellow recruits) had decided to see the whole thing through by this point. Nonetheless, the ROC military does leave a way out for individuals with pre-existing or acquired physical or psychological conditions. This is referred to as 驗退 (medical discharge after examination), and is attainable only after a lengthy process of appeal and examination by a military doctor.

"Hey, why is G still gone? He's been in POA's office for two days now."

"Didn't you hear? POA sent him off to the military hospital in Kaohsiung along with the rest of the sick bus this morning so he could get his leg X-rayed."

Although receiving such an early discharge was often the subject of jokes between us ("Hey, run over my foot with the wheelbarrow so I can apply for a medical discharge"), few actually considered intentionally pursuing it. For a few however, getting out early via a medical discharge was an appealing prospect.

"Hey, did you hear about what happened to G at the hospital today?"

"No. And why isn't he back here by now? I had to handle his cleaning duties on top of mine today."

"They say he went nuts at the hospital. Suddenly started ranting, foaming at the mouth, and peeing all over the floor. Said he wanted to kill himself."

"WTF? He was perfectly normal when he left."

"The docs there want to hold him in the psych ward for a week or so for further observation."

"That asshole... so we have to do his work for him now, while he gets to lounge around in bed all day?"

G would eventually return to the mess squad two weeks later, the doctors having decided that his "mental breakdown" was a farce. His efforts were not all for naught however, as he did recieve a consolation prize: his leg was enough to earn him a "full stop" (全休) to most physical training. Along with individuals with similar classification, he was still required to serve his full service term, but would be exempt from nearly all PT and field training. To balance this out, the squad formed by such individuals ended up being assigned to handle various menial tasks to free up other recruits. As a result, those of us in the mess squad finally got to participate in morning PT with the rest of the company.

As a conscript, slacking off, or "drifting" (飄) as its referred to colloquially is a time honored tradition. However, the biggest corollary to this is Thou Shalt Not Inconvenience Thy Fellow Conscripts Through Thy Slacking Off. Individuals repeatedly violating this find themselves rapidly ostracized from the rest of the group, as their assigned workload would have to be picked up by someone else. Consequently, individuals acquiring full stop or medical discharge status are viewed with suspicion by fellow troops and officers alike. Individuals known to have done so fraudulently are held in very low esteem by everyone. G's reputation amongst the rest of the recruits would never fully recover.

Despite this, there was always a steady trickle of individuals who would attempt to follow the same path (there are tons of discussions online on how to do this). I would often run into them while delivering their meal trays to POA's office at mealtime, where they sat lounging around.

"So, what's your story?"

"I sprained my ankle during field exercises."

"Oh, sorry to hear that. Get well soon."

"Oh no. I plan to stay crippled for as long as I can so I can keep skipping PT."

"Oh. Well, best of luck not getting well soon."

"Thanks. So, what happened today after I left?" 

"Oh, the usual. Sorry, got to head back to the mess hall, still more work to be done there."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

你是哪裡人? "And where are you from?"

"... and to be honest, as section leader, my first impression of your class has been very very poor."

As one of the most senior NCOs in our training company, we typically addressed the staff sergeant (E-6) by his position, as is common in the ROC armed forces: section leader (組長). Word was, he'd been in the Army for 12 years.  He stared at us with a look that seemed to mix disdain with general apathy - his usual attitude toward us new recruits. This had a tendency of changing on select occasions. Our first introduction to him was in the mess hall when one of the mess squads from an adjacent company failed to don surgical masks while dishing out chow.  The explosion of profanity and clang of trays being thrown frisbee-style across the room could be heard throughout the building.

Now, we were gathered around him in a semicircle, sweating in full combat gear, for our first real introduction to using our T-65K2 assault rifles for their intended purpose... namely, passing our final qualification exam at the end of basic training.

"Your objective will be to land 4 out of 6 rounds within the designated target area at 175 meters during your final exam (監測) at the end of basic training. In a few days, you will have your first target practice outing, firing at calibration targets at a distance of 25 meters - a piece of cake."

He paused for dramatic effect...

"We will now practice for your first outing using simulated targets at 25 meters. You may rest your unloaded rifles on sandbags while in the lying position that you will be assuming at the firing range. You will follow a precise procedure at the range that we will practice now...

Listen up. After the first round is fired your IQs will go from 60 to 30. After the second round, they'll go negative."

We lined up behind half a dozen sandbags placed on the ground, next to several foam mats. Wooden targets resembling an inverted U were placed some distance away.

"Now I hope you've been reading the material we've issued you to carry around in your pockets. What trajectory does a bullet take upon leaving the muzzle of your rifle?"

*Long pause*

"Are you all mutes or something?"

"Reporting sergeant! A parabolic trajectory!" (「報告組長,拋物線!」), a rather brave (and obese) recruit yelled.

"And where are you from?" (「你是哪裡人?」)

"Reporting sergeant, New Taipei City!" (「報告組長,新北市!」)

"What, are you from everywhere in New Taipei?" (「怎樣,全新北都是你家喔?」)

"Reporting sergeant, Tamsui!"(「報告組長,淡水!」)

"Tamsui? Looks like you've been eating too much A-gei (a Tamsui specialty dish consisting of noodles wrapped in tofu)" (「淡水?我看你是啊給吃太多。」)

Sarge proceeded to go down the line, asking everyone where they were from, and coming up with a specific insult corresponding to each.

"Now listen up. Since your bullets will not be flying in a straight line, at 25 meters your bullets should fall about 2.4 centimeters below the target if your aim is true."

We then proceeded to act out the standard operating procedure for target practice:

"Prepare for target practice in lying position!" (「臥射預備!」)

"Preparing for target practice in lying position!", we yelled, taking a step to the left and dropping onto the mats, while resting the stocks of our rifles on the sandbags pointed towards the target.

"Load three bullets, release bolt!" (「三發子彈,送上槍機!」)

"Loading three bullets, releasing bolt!", we yelled while inserting an empty magazine and pushing the bolt release catch on the side of our rifles.

The bolt snapped forward with a satisfying metallic clack, which would have chambered a bullet from the magazine, had there actually been any. If you've ever seen an action movie where a character slaps the side of his rifle after inserting a new magazine, this is what he was doing. We were expressly forbidden from slapping our rifles (Too much potential for weapons damage, our company commander had said).
"Ready on the left!" (「左線預備!」)

"Disengaging safety" (「開保險!」)

"Ready on the right!" (「右線預備!」)

"Taking a deep breath!" (「深呼吸!」)

"Ready along the line!" (「全線預備!」)

"Opening fire!" (「開始射擊!」)

A series of clicks echoed along the line as everyone pulled their triggers.

"You should press the stock of your rifles to your chest during target practice, since your aim will tend to shift when pulling the trigger. We will practice by placing NT$1 coins (about the size of a US penny) on the barrels of your rifles. If you are holding your rifles steady, the coin should not fall off when you pull the trigger.

You will continue this exercise until you have pulled the trigger 20 consecutive times without the coin falling off the barrel."

We proceeded to do just that. Sweating in my steel helmet and long sleeved BDUs in the tropical heat and humidity, I yanked the charging lever of my rifle backwards to cock the firing pin. Another recruit placed placed an NT$1 coin on the barrel. I inhaled and held my breath, and carefully lined up the sights on my rifle, before gently squeezing the trigger using the second joint of my index finger as we were instructed...


By luck, or by skill, the coin stayed put. Maybe I'd get the hang of this after all.

I repeated the process meticulously, sweat starting to pool up under the lining of my helmet. Taiwan still uses the classic US M1-style steel helmet in basic training and other roles where looks or budgets are at a premium (eg. the honor guard). While being heavier and providing less protection than the newer Kevlar versions, it is unmistakably more stylish in a Saving Private Ryan-sort of way.


And again.




By now, sweat was running down my face, the rim of my helmet was sliding down over my eyes, and I was struggling to keep my eyes open through the stinging sweat and the increasing blurriness from keeping my right eye open. (Remember, you only have about 15 seconds of effective vision when sighting your target, sarge had warned.)




The unmistakable sound of the coin falling off my rifle barrel jolted me out of whatever zen state I was previously in.

It may sound trivial, but by the end of the hour, no one had managed to go for 20 consecutive shots without the coins falling off their rifle barrels to sounds of frustrated cursing.

It eventually dawned on us that like so many other things in basic training, we were being set up to fail.

"That was pathetic", Sarge said at the end of the session.

"I'm.... I'm sorry sergeant!" (「報...報告組長,對不起!」), one recruit ventured.

"Don't apologize to me, apologize to the country!" (「現在不是對不起我,是對不起國家!」)