Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Next". *stamp*

"I've finished my studies in the U.S. and just returned the other day-"

"Ah? Please speak to the lady in the next window, she specializes in such cases. Please pardon the inconvenience."

For being what is probably the most dreaded section of the Shilin (士林) District Office, the civil servants at Department of Compulsory Military Service (兵役課) are unfailingly polite. Probably comes from being yelled at a lot by angry parents waving foreign passports. That and Shilin being the epicenter of expat residents in Taipei, what with the Taipei American School, the Tianmu neighborhood and all...

"Yes? How may I help you?"

The lady stares at me over a pile of what looks like files on all the other draft age males from Taipei's north side. Future comrades. Or whatever the preferred term is today. I take a deep breath and hope that 24 hours has been sufficient time for the American accent in my Mandarin to dissipate (remember... non-rhoticity! Just like Boston).

"Hi! I just finished school in the U.S. and arrived back in the country yesterday. I haven't been drafted yet and I'd like to report in to get the ball rolling-"

"- He wants to know how long he has before basic training since he has a job now."

Standing behind me, my mother can't help but interject even after promising me that she'd let me handle things on her own. I survived on my own abroad for the last 12 years but apparently old habits die hard. (Must get used to Taiwan family values again... the Italians are mama's boys and thrive just as well...)

"May I see your I.D. and any diplomas validated by our diplomatic personnel?"

I hand over my I.D. and a plastic folder containing photocopies of documents with TECO validation seals that cost me $30 apiece for the original documents and $15 apiece for Chinese translations that I had to do myself. Thank you Ministry of Foreign Affairs...

The lady taps a few things on her keyboard, gets up, then returns with a folder with my name on it.

"Engineering degree... current I.D. number checks out... wait a minute-" (Ha... another kid who finally ran out of education deferments)

She flips over to the backside of my Taiwan I.D. and frowns.

"Place of Birth: United States. Doesn't this make you an American?"

"Well yes, but my family moved here when I was a kid and had me naturalized to make the immigration paperwork easier and I was under the impression that I'm still required to serve..."

She stares. The unspoken "Sure we don't let you relinquish your citizenship till you've served but shouldn't you have just entered on your American passport and pretended you had ex-pat status so you'd be exempt from this? Everybody does it."- seems to hang in the air. It only lasts a few seconds.

"Read and sign this please." (you can read right?)

She whips out a legal statement.

"I _________ affirm that I am a dual citizen of the Republic of China and __________ . I do not claim and have no intention of claiming expatriate status and understand that I am subject to military conscription as a military age male."
I sign, wondering if she isn't planning to send me to the psych ward at NTU.

"You'll hear from us in a few weeks for your physical at Yang-Ming Hospital. If everything checks out, you'll come back to draw straws to decide your service branch, and can expect to ship out sometime in late March or early April."

A few weeks later a notice comes in the mail to pick up the physical exam forms at the District Office. "Please report to the specified hospital at the specified date and time along with two 1" photos, your I.D., a ballpoint pen, and this form."

Yang-Ming Hospital is a large building covered with pink bathroom tile in a nice neighborhood in Tianmu. I arrive on an overcast afternoon of the sort that characterizes Taipei in the winter.

The physical exam center is a separate building located to the rear of the main hospital building. I am surprised by the complete lack of military personnel. The check-in desks are staffed by middle aged women who might as well have been the mothers of all the young men milling around. The doctors are all civilians normally attached to the hospital. If it wasn't for the large number of young men from all around the north side of Taipei walking around accompanied by anxious parents, it would probably be another ordinary working day. One of the doctors chats loudly with his colleagues:

"... and what do you mean healthy? How many of these kids do you think are going to whip out medical files claiming missing limbs, allergies, and esoteric diseases they found on PubMed? How many of the rest are going to whip out foreign passports, here on the north side? And can you blame them when even the president's daughter hides behind an American passport? In my day if you had flat feet they'd tell you to stuff tissue on the soles of your shoes..."
As if on cue, several of the examinees gestured frantically at the middle aged lady overseeing the check-ins... "Excuse me, I'm not sure why I was told to come here, I have a foreign passport and lived abroad...". Interestingly, after the former (fluent Chinese-speaking) group had departed, quite a few other individuals of mixed ethnicity were still standing around with the rest of us. So much for blood thicker than water.

At the check-in desk, I'm handed a four page questionnaire. "Are you feeling healthy and well today?" "Have you been depressed lately?" "Are you angry at your parents?" "Do you have a driver's license?" After answering to what I suppose was the satisfaction of the proctor, I'm handed a physical exam form, my background file from the District Office, and a black tote bag containing a pair of gym shorts and plastic flip flops.

After changing, I was led with the other examinees into a wing with several rooms, each containing nurses and doctors to perform a particular examination. At the end of each examination, the responsible doctor would write the results on the exam form, and stamp the particular section. Everything was systematic and assembly line-like with draftees lined up quietly at each station. There was little talk amongst the draftees as we wound our way from station to station. Blood pressure, dental, EKG, height and weight, vision, blood, urine, chest X-ray...

Some tests were simple. Hearing:

"Do you have hearing problems?"


"Next." *stamp*

"Have you ever felt like killing yourself?"


"Have you ever seen a psychologist before?"

"I'm talking to one right now."

"Next." *stamp*
Finally, the part you always hear about. I find myself standing before a panel of one female and two male urologists in lab coats, wearing surgical masks. A screen bisects the room, ending right before the doctors so that they can see behind it. The other draftees in line behind me look on. One of the male doctors slips on a pair of latex gloves and comes in for a closer hands on examination.

"Please step behind the screen and drop your pants."
Despite spending the last six years studying in the town that gave birth to the Naked Pumpkin Run, I really don't find the lack of clothing to be a liberating experience in this sort of setting.

Satisfied that I do indeed possess functioning male genitalia, the doctor nods and tells me to pull my pants back up and moves on to the next question on the list...

"Now, have you ever had a hernia?"
"Next." *stamp*

The entire exam takes about half an hour, after which I find myself in front of the check-out desk, again staffed by middle aged ladies who might have been my friends' mothers.

"There's nothing immediately disqualifying, so we're just waiting on the blood and urine results. You'll hear from us again in about a month. Go out and have fun."