Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

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."


kungwan said...

Nice blog! Good to see that you've managed to keep your emotions in check throughout and kept it PG.

My POA at boot camp was stumped as to how to deal with me (Overseas Taiwanese from Africa). I helped the squad buy some time with stories of Africa that lessened the duration of our tasks. Later, I was dragged into doing some free proofreading service to the battalion POA that offered "privileges" and some respite from mundane tasks. That said, I preferred to be with my squad instead of hanging out with a bureaucratic fart.

I agree with you that the POA at the combat units are like a godsend, however, I am inclined to believe that they have conspired with the company leader to play the "white face". They are also products of a different style of education at 政戰學校 in Taipei rather than 陸軍官校 with more civilian style training.

I served in Matsu at the Battalion HQ and our Battalion POA was a rabidly patriotic stiff, in comparison with those at the company level. Everyone despised him with a vengeance. He became infamous throughout the island for his rigidity and ended up being more of a demoralizer rather than a safety net for the men.

Haitien said...

Ah trust me, this is the sanitized version. My normal vocabulary now includes the use of 他媽的, 莫名其妙, as well as other more colorful terms.

Having spent nearly all my time at the company level, I have very little contact with the battalion level officers (which suits me just fine). In general though, as you mentioned, the higher you go, the more removed the officers tend to be from the day to day grind that those of us in the field have to deal with.

I find that the whole good cop / bad cop routine between the CO and POA seems to work as well as anything. For a time, my unit (air defense artillery) lost both our good cops (POA and 02), who were later replaced with a very green (but well-meaning) POA, and a 02 who was so hardcore that he made the CO seem like a good cop in comparison.