Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Thursday, August 23, 2012

懇親日: Visitation Day, Part 1

Head squaddie (班頭), you taking the bus to the train station when they let us out on Visitation Day? Also, want a bento box when you get back? Mess hall is closed the day we come back.

"Yeah, but I'm taking the high speed rail back. Lunch box please."

I made a note of his choices in my small pocket notebook that I'd purchased at the PX on Induction Day. Given the general ban on smart phones and PDAs, we'd all reverted back to pen and paper.

"Damn, that's close to a quarter of your pay this month... okay, Squaddie 3, how 'bout you?"

"Didn't I tell you before that I'll be hailing a taxi myself, Squaddie 2?"

"Sorry, new orders from above say that when we leave on Visitation Day, its either with our parents, or on the bus to the train station."

"Fine, I'll take the bus."

I scribbled this down in my notebook. As the second tallest recruit in our squad, it had fallen on me to handle all the miscellaneous tasks our Head Squaddie didn't have time to handle on top of his normal duties of keeping track where everyone was. My tiny pocket notebook was filling up fast.

Visitation Day (懇親日) marks the halfway point during basic training. On Visitation Day, family and friends are invited on base to see how their loved ones are dealing with their new lives in the military. For us recruits, Visitation Day represented a reprieve from the usual training regimen, our first contact with the outside world since induction, and more importantly: our first leave. The whole event plays an almost mythical role in the cultural perception of military service in Taiwan.

What's he crying about? He's gonna be on leave in less than 4 hours.

"Listen up! All of you will be recieving new BDUs for Visitation Day. Also, you will take turns manning the check-in desk for relatives coming on base as follows..."

With PR concerns in play, our superiors were taking no chances. All relatives coming on base were to check into a desk manned by two professionally staffed new recruits who would match their names with the presubmitted list, while being courtious and professional.

Sort of a tall order for a class comprised mainly of 19 year old kids just out of high school. Being the best educated amongst the group, I was thrown to manning the check-in desk for most of the morning.

Friday, August 03, 2012

未進彈!Off target!

Mk. 2 grenade (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
"SIR! New Recruit 030 reporting at the grenade range for my first grenade training exercise, SIR!"

I stood at the staring point of a short runway of about 10 meters in full combat gear, staring down what looked like a typical long jump course, a dummy Mark 2 grenade clutched in my right hand. Typical except for the fact that instead of a sandpit, the track terminated with a thick white line drawn on the ground, beyond which was were two straight lines radiating outwards. Various lines at 20, 25, 30, and 40 meters were marked beyond. Two drill sergeants sat behind a folding desk placed at the thick white line.

I charged forwards suppressing a wild yell.

"Damn, that white line line is coming up fast" I thought.

"Remember", I recalled my drill sergeant saying before the exercise, "a hand grenade is much heavier than a baseball. DO NOT THROW IT LIKE A BASEBALL! We once had a new recruit who tried to do that and we still remember the sound of his elbow fracturing as he hurled..."

Bearing this in mind, I tried to hurl my dummy grenade as gingerly as I could overhand, fearful of the crack from my humerus splitting into a million pieces.

The grenade went sailing over the white line.

Oh yeah, I'm supposed to hit the ground now, right?

I dropped to the dirt with my head propped up between my two elbows.

"Off target!" (「未進彈!」), the sergeant observing the entire fiasco yelled through his bullhorn, as my grenade landed about 15 meters from the white line where I was sprawled on the ground. Well within the blast radius of about 25 meters.

"Twenty pushups, then to the disqualified group!", our company CO yelled, from where he was observing the entire spectacle off to the side.

Hand grenade hurling is one of those tests that every new recruit is tested on at the end of basic training. To qualify, you must successfully hurl a dummy hand grenade at least 25 meters from a running start, and have it land between two gradually radiating lines that at the most, are about a meter wide.

This is also the test that most new recruits fail. I took my place in the group of failures. A drill sergeant glared at us.

"Alright, line up here and try to go through the moves of grenade hurling from this line when I order you to."
Lined up with a dozen other new recruits, I stood at the starting line facing a foam mat about 30 meters away that marked the finish line.


I charged forwards as fast as a I could. Here comes the line... I twisted and hurled, before dropping on the mat.

The sergeant stood over me, shaking his head.

"You are completely uncoordinated. You've got the power, but not the control. Go do the Mario dance until I tell you to stop."

I proceeded to run back and forth in front of the company twisting my hips, and jumping around with my fists in the air, as if I was doing some weird hybrid of the salsa dance while stomping pixelated turtles.

This was supposed to promote coordination.

Another colleague of mine, a big guy, who had been a drum player in an indie rock band before being drafted did an impressive approximation of an Olympics discus thrower... only to have the dummy grenade fall about 5 meters in front of him.

"What the hell was that? From now on you throw underhanded!" 

After the rest of the company had their first round, we tried a second round at the grenade range.

"SIR! New Recruit 030 reporting at the grenade range for my second grenade training exercise, SIR!"

 Okay, run... twist your hips, here comes the line, THROW!!!


I threw the grenade like I was trying to make a pass from center field to home plate. Drill Sergeant warnings be dammed.

I hit the dirt. Again. And waited for the observing sergeant's assessment.

My grenade landed about 30 meters away, about 10 meters to the left of the two designed lines


Walking back to the disqualified line, we subjected ourselves to our CO's latest improvement scheme... flinging dumbbells over our shoulders.

("AND KEEP AT IT", he yelled through his megaphone, after yet another morning at the grenade range)

My indie band friend warmed up for his second try, taking off down the track like an Olympic sprinter on fire, swinging his arm so fast I could have sworn it would have been dislocated on lesser men...


He flung the grenade mightily. We all stared downrange expecting to see company records broken....

"HEADS UP!!!", the spotter yelled.

We all ducked instinctively. The grenade fell about 20 meters behind where he had released it.

"GODDAMNIT! MY NCO'S ARE IDIOTS!", our CO yelled, bringing his foot down so hard on the plastic milk crate he was resting it on that it buckled. The rest of us were treated to the spectacle of the CO trying to kick off the milk crate now attached to his leg, while utilizing vocabulary not approved by the Ministry of National Defense.

Monday, April 23, 2012

營站: The PX

"You all did well at the range today, so the the CO has authorized a visit to the PX after you've cleaned up your personal items."

Our squad leader has barely finished before the barracks was filled with excited chatter.

"About time!"
"Man, I've been running low on junk food-"
"Screw junk food, I've been reduced to stealing your toothpaste every evening-"
"Hey, lend me NT$100 - I spent all my change in the vending machines out back-"

The noise level dropped by half.

"Aw, not this agai-"


Dead silence.

"You have been here for close to a week now. AND YOU STILL DON'T KNOW HOW TO COME TO ATTENTION?"

We rapidly shuffled back in front of our bunks, mostly covered with our BDUs and half-removed gear.

"You have 5 minutes to neatly put away your items in their assigned places. Feel free to talk as loud as you want as long as you don't mind me calling off the whole PX visit. Carry on."

We went back to arranging things as quickly as we could, shushing each other in the process.

"Hey, lend me NT$500 -"

5 minutes later we were neatly lined up outside the barracks. I can't recall the last time I'd seen everyone assemble that quickly and quietly.

After a quick headcount, our squad leaders marched us off between the lines of barracks towards the PX.

The PX (營站) was a medium sized building near the edge of base, containing a small Mom and Pop commissary; as well as one of the major convenience store chains that are practically an institution in and of themselves in Taiwan. Some aluminum picnic tables were placed in the courtyard. The commissary sold various snacks, drinks, smokes, and personal accessories - all tax free. The convenience store was more or less identical to those on the outside, though lacking in alcoholic beverages. I've also noticed that convenience store clerks on military bases throughout Taiwan tend to be young, female, and (by our admittedly deprived standards) cute.

As far as we were concerned, it was all a little slice of heaven.

The PX was normally off limits to new recruits. We'd been there once on our first day to purchase a few basic accessories including toiletries, a can of boot polish, a shoe brush, a soapbox (for inspection use only - most of us used the quicker shower gel thanks to our 2 minute combat showers), some elastic blousers, a sewing kit, a small notebook, and a foam pad to line the insides of our helmets.

"You will assemble in front of the PX in 20 minutes", our squad leader said. "Until then, your time is your own." He walked off, lighting a cigarette.

We all rushed inside, hurriedly filling our shopping baskets with practically anything that caught our fancy. I picked up a can of cough drops: despite the best efforts of our superiors, the common cold was spreading rampant in the barracks, and 2/3's of us were afflicted with a nasty cough.

Several recruits stocked up on instant noodles, which many preferred to the mess hall food. I didn't really understand that - mess hall food isn't gourmet, but it is at least Real Food, and relatively fresh. The smokers amongst us also took the opportunity to replenish their personal cigarette stashes. Military policy is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to smoking: the barracks walls are plastered with anti-smoking posters, and incoming troops are required to sign forms committing them to quitting. The forms were passed out by a drill sergeant smoking a cigarette. Like everything else, the cigarettes in the PX were tax-free, and many troops stocked up on extra smokes to bring off base with them. I'd estimate that something close to half of the troops in the units I've served with were smokers.

Shoe brush, NT$19, Made in Taiwan.

Rushing back outside, we enjoyed what time we had left drinking our soft drinks and munching on our snacks. I sat at the same table as our squad leaders, who for the moment, had let their drill sergeant facade drop. Both were draftee corporals, and were considered to be some of the more human elements in our chain of command, as long as you weren't too dense.

"By the way squad leader, I forgot to thank you for letting me sneak a shower the third night after lights out."

"No problem. I noticed you were being pulled out of the squad for a bunch of different general details during wash time that night."

"So, do you come here often, squad leader?"

"Not as much as I'd like. Its the only spot on base where I can kick back for a moment. After you guys leave, I've only got 1 month of my conscription left."

Free time on base is rare, and fleeting when it does happen. All too soon, we were in formation marching back to the barracks for evening inspection.

I don't think I've ever had a soda or a candy bar that's tasted as good as they did during those rare visits to the PX.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

單兵戰鬥教練: Individual Combat Training

 "Fireteam leader! Please cover me so I can prepare for the upcoming assault!"
Our squad knelt on the grass of the combat course in full combat gear, grouped into fire teams of three. Standing in front of us, our squad leader raised his megaphone:

"I expect ALL of you to speak up during individual combat training. Continue!"
"Very well, I will cover you."
We started down at the sheet of paper we'd been given with complete outline and SOP for this exercise, which has delighted and annoyed generations of new recruits. We'd spent nap time carefully laminating our sheets with clear tape so they would survive being dragged through the dirt with us. 

This is Individual Combat Training (單兵戰鬥教練  or 單戰 for short) - intended to provide an experience for new recruits approximating combat. More or less.

"Adjacent troops, please cover me!", we shouted. Then answering our own requests: "Very well, I will cover you!"

Or we would if we weren't so focused on memorizing the lines printed on our cheat sheets under "1. PRE-ATTACK PREPARATIONS".

"Weapons on safe. Retreating behind cover and assuming low squat..."

"Well, move back behind those mounds and squat!", the drill sergeant yelled. Retreating behind the mounds of dirt, we continued reciting our lines, pointing at the individual items on the list:

"... checking weapons and equipment. First checking weapon from the top down: flash suppressor, forward sight, hand guard, bolt carrier and receiver assembly, trigger assembly, stock. Checking ammunition and replacing if less than 5 rounds remain."
( 「...檢查武器裝具,首先檢查武器,由上而下檢查: 防火帽、準星、護木、槍機總成、扳機總成、槍托、檢查子彈,不足五發予以更換或補足。」)

"5 rounds?", one of my squadmates whispered, "I wouldn't play Counterstrike with only 5 rounds."

"Checking equipment from the top down, from left to right, front to back..."

Like I'd have time to regurgitate this in a tactical situation, I thought.

"Checking left boot laces, left blousers, right boot laces, right blouses, ammo pouches, gun belt, bayonet scabbard, canteen, entrenchment tools, gas mask, grenade pouch. Checking whether helmet is securely fastened. Checking whether camouflage matches with current operational environment (Swipe hand across face)-"
(「檢查左鞋帶、左綁腿、右鞋帶、右綁腿、彈袋、S腰袋、刺刀銷、水壺、土工器具、防護面具、手榴彈袋、檢查鋼盔扣是否扣實。檢查偽裝是否與現地相符 (手往臉上畫)」)

"DON'T READ THE PART IN PARENTHESES, JUST DO IT!", came the shout from the loudspeakers. "God", the recruit beside me muttered, "I thought I was done with memorizing bullshit after I finished high school".

Preach on brother.

We then tested whether everything was securely fastened in a memorable fashion: wearing our ten extra pounds of gear and holding our rifles erect under the scorching southern Taiwan sun, we jumped in place turning in 6 semi-circles, landing back in a squat, counting out each semi-circle as we went:

*jump* "1 of 1..."


*jump* "2 of 1..."

"Is that the best you can do?" 

*jump* "1 of 2..."

"Whose trench-digger fell off?"

*groan* *jump* "2 of 2..."

My ankles hurt.

*gasp* *jump* "1 of 3..."

Oh god I can't feel my toes.

*arrrrrrrrg* *jump* "2 of 3!"

We knelt on the ground leaning on our rifles, gasping for breath. "Well, continue!", the drill sergeant said.

"Move low and take cover. Disengaging safety. Reporting, fire team leader: pre-attack preparations complete. Ready to attack when ordered!"
Anyone who's seen the Taiwan educational system knows the drill: Memorize to Pass (背多分). In our case, this meant memorizing the entire SOP.

Individual Combat Training consists of ten segments comprising pre-attack preparations, gas attack, moving under fire, crossing various obstacles including stockades, trenches, barbed wire, and culminating an imaginary assault on a PLA (Chinese People's Liberation Army) stronghold. Once you get over the fact that you're required to memorize the requisite lines from what is essentially a prepared script, it is actually somewhat exhilarating crawling under barbed wire, running around in zig-zags, and diving for cover.

At one time, according to our superiors, the entire course would be run complete with dummy explosive charges, pyrotechnics, and a fake opposing force. These days thanks to budget cuts and overprotective parents, we just have to use our imaginations.

Things I should not shoot at.

The entire sequence ends with the surrender of the imaginary PLA forces after being subject to the following lines recited by everyone, and sounding as if they haven't been updated since 1979:

"Greetings communist compatriots! You are surrounded! Any further resistance is futile. Drop your weapons and come with us. Our government is forgiving and will guarantee your safety."
Sgt. H was one of our superiors whose leadership skills I actually admired. Whereas some of the younger drill sergeants preferred to go around blasting the new recruits indiscriminately, Sgt. H adopted a solemn, but firm attitude, commanding the respect of the recruits under him. In another universe, he might have been a successful high school teacher.

"Look", he said during an all too brief rest period. "You know and I know that in real life, nothing ever goes according to script. Some of you have complained that you aren't going to run onto the battlefield regurgitating lines, which is true. If you ever do get the opportunity to use any of what you've been practicing, then it means the worst has already happened and Taiwan has already been overrun. In that case, it will be up to you to pick and choose from the moves that you're now practicing to put together some coherent resistance."

"Come on Sarge", one of the recruits said expressing a popular sentiment, "There won't be a war. And if there were, we're screwed anyhow."

"You are members of the ROC military. I don't care whether you identify or not, but as long as you are members of the military you will obey all orders until you are discharged. Until you are a civilian again, you don't have the right to say no."

We would run the Individual Combat course many more times, in preparation for the final exam, and spend countless hours memorizing our lines. They say that militaries are a microcosm of the societies that they serve. Insofar as this is the land of cram schools and rote memorization, I can say they're right when it comes to this.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

莒光課 Chukuang Class

"Hey neighbor, have you considered bathing?"

We lay head to foot on our bunks in the barracks for the usual after lunch nap after a long morning of drill, firearms training, and our first attempts at what our superiors referred to as "combat training". Namely running around in zig-zags with our rifles, hitting the deck, then crawling. Those Spanish-speaking countries are on to something with siesta.

"You don't exactly smell all that great yourself, Captain America."

With a couple dozen of us stuffed into the same poorly ventilated space in 30℃ weather, the barracks now smelled like the fine cheese aisle of a fancy grocery store, or alternatively, not unlike the stinky tofu vendor at your local night market.

As for me, my U.S. background had led to my most recent nickname. One that would eventually evolve into American Superman (美國超人), after I ended up as one of the last airmen standing during a pushup duel.


Another whistle sounded. Everyone groaned. The loudspeaker crackled to life.

"Attention all new recruits in _ Company. It is now 1330 hours. At 1335, assemble in the Chungshan Room carrying your stools, writing boards, and canteens. That is all."

Every company-level military unit in Taiwan has a meeting space designated as the Chungshan Room (中山室, named after the first ROC president Sun Yat-sen). This can range from a single classroom-sized space, to a large lecture hall. The room contains a number of LCD TVs, and is decorated with flags, (heavily airbrushed) pictures of Sun Yat-sen and the current president. Various slogans round out the mix. In these post-martial law days, the slogans read 力行民主憲政  ("Faithfully exercise constitutional democracy") and 堅定愛國信念 ("Solidify patriotic ideals") - ideas that are unlikely to offend either side of the mainstream political spectrum in modern day Taiwan.

After hastily folding away our blankets, plumping our pillows, and hastily slipping into our boots and BDUs. We slowly made our way up to the Chungshan Room in a ragged line, walking inside one by one.

"Just try being the next person to slam the screen door", one of the drill sergeants snarled at the line of groggy, disoriented recruits.

Mostly, the Chungshan Room in our company was used for equipment distribution and firearms maintenance. After training classes everyday, the designated Firearms Squad had to grudgingly disassemble and clean every single rifle that was ever taken out of the armory - you haven't seen surreal till you've seen a bunch of conscripts polishing T65K2's to the beat of the Doraemon theme song.

We arranged our stools into columns corresponding to our squads. The first member of each squad, the "Head Squaddie" (班頭) did a quick head count, before reporting back to POA, who stood in the front of the room.

"Squad _ reporting, 12 out of 12 present, sir!"
POA turned on the two LCD TVs at the front of the room, tuning them to CTS. We were treated to the usual afternoon soap opera involving a remake involving Ching dynasty princess living the Forbidden City. The storyline was the same as previous iterations dated back to when I was in middle school, but the actress starring the princess in question now spoke in an annoyingly high pitched, cutsy tone that grated on the ears.

On the other hand, the princesses' foreign tutor, played by a Caucasian actor, now actually played a significant role beyond comic relief, and actually kicked butt from time to time. Progress!

Outside, these things wouldn't have even been considered worth watching by any of us. But after spending days stuck in basic training cut off from the outside world, anything was welcome.

After a few ads for health supplements and shovelware online games that we would eventually become very accustomed to, we arrived at the feature presentation and raison d'etre for the entire exercise...

In Taiwan, we don't have a dedicated military broadcasting network like the American Forces Network (AFN).  Instead, the military makes use of CTS from 1400-1500 on Thursdays for a TV program called Chukuang Garden (莒光園地), produced by the military's Political Warfare Bureau (政戰處). Chukuang Garden is an ostensibly educational program designed especially for the troops. Viewing is required every Thursday afternoon, everywhere.

As far as we were concerned, it is an excellent one hour where we could doze off in a relatively comfortable room.

Chukuang Garden appears to be a relic from the times where there was a political officer attached to each company level unit exercising the same level of power as the CO, and the slogan of the ROC military was "Duty, Honor, Country, Ideology, Leader" (責任,榮譽,國家,主義,領袖).

For the record, the modern day slogan of the ROC military is "Duty, Honor, Country". The last two items were removed along with the vestiges of the KMT party-state, and the end of widespread Chang Kai-shek worship, during the Chen administration. The military brass may be a decade or two behind the rest of Taiwanese society, but I'll give them this - they went along with civilian control of the military back when more conservative voices were calling for a coup.

"Shut up and listen. The next person to doze off gets to stand for the duration of the program, or until he finds the next sleeper!"
The program is broken down into a few basic segments. A brief news segment, consisting primarily of shots showing units that the President or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited over the past week (all mostly showing them looking at things), as well as any awards or commendations bestowed over the past week. Occasionally, this was followed by an editorial segment where a talking head friendly to the current administration would speak at length about current policies with a military spin ("Although cross-strait relations are at a dentate, all personnel should remain vigilant as Beijing's hostile policies towards us have not changed").

The content that followed usually contained a historical segment, either relating to the history of the ROC military on Mainland China (pre-1949), or after the relocation to Taiwan (post-1949). Although the former might as well have happened on another planet as far as todays troops are concerned, there was a fair amount of interest in the content of the latter, which included various Cold War operations that most people in modern day Taiwan have never heard of (The 1950 stand of the ROCNS Tuojiang against 20 something PLA Navy combatants is one of those long lost tales that most people have forgotten, as well as the ROCAF Black Bat and Black Cat Squadrons' spy plane flights over the PRC).

This was usually followed by a short drama-like skit produced by the Special Services group (藝工團, e.g.: where actors go when they're conscripted), highlighting issues ranging from suicide prevention (remember, call 1985 if you have problems) to counterintelligence (all PRC spies speak with exaggerated accents repeatedly dropping the term: "motherland").

Occasionally, this is replaced by edited dubbed version of Discovery Channel's "Future Weapons", prefaced by an ROC military officer describing a similar, but inferior system that we operated ("But remember, in the end, its up to the troops operating the weapons systems")

If this seems superficial, remember that given the bullshit that troops have to put up with everyday, the fact of the matter is: "This job generally sucks". Low pay, long duty hours, inflexible superiors, infrequent leave, and lousy social status.

The job sucks, but someone has to do it.

Every military force has to appeal to something in the troops greater than the promise of a steady paycheck and 20 year pension.

For me, it meant making sure the overall objective was accomplished, doing no less than my other squadmates (and frequently more). On most days, this takes a sense of caring about something greater than yourself (your squad mates). On really bad days, it takes a vague sense of something greater than your squad (the unit, the military, or the country) - I say vague because you really don't have much time to think. You just do things impulsively because they vaguely seemed to need doing.

And then you bitch about it afterwards.

There is a popular version of the Chukuang Garden theme song written by a conscript Marine. It might as well be the anthem of all draftees at one point or another:

My head is spinning 
On duty, off duty
I can do everything, always working overtime
My brain is empty, my mind wanders the seven seas
I'm sweaty, my BDUs stink, and no one loves me 
Life shouldn't begin at 0700 
 We've learned to alter our leave passes
We do everything
Our health is in tatters
We make NT$8.5 per hour!
(chorus) NT$8.5 per hour!

Monday, April 09, 2012

大兵手記: G.I. Diary

2140 hours. We stood at attention lined up in front of our bunks. Behind us, we had each deployed our bedding and mosquito netting - the edges of the latter neatly tucked under our mattresses forming a rectangular mini-tent on each bunk. A whistle blew, and the leaders of the four squads quartered in our barracks marched in for the pre-lights out inspection.

After a long day of training and other miscellaneous work, all of us hated these barracks musters (大寢集合) - which our squad leaders typically used to lend extra weight to their orders, or general speeches of encouragement.

"Your behavior today was was pathetic. If you think things are strict now then you'd all better start shaping up, unless you want to see how much worse it can get. Also, Chukuang Class (莒光課) is tomorrow at 1400 in the Chungshan Room (中山室). Has anyone not been issued a G.I. Diary (大兵手記)?"

I vaguely recalled a small spiral bound logbook with annoyingly cute artwork that we had all been issued fairly early on, and had since ignored and stashed away somewhere in my locker.

"You will submit your G.I. Diaries to your squad leaders before lights out tonight for review of this week's entry."

But we haven't written a thing yet! Everyone thought in unison.

Our squad leader was telepathic in the way that most competent NCOs tend to be.

"You have until 2150 to submit your diaries with this week's entry. Everyone is to be in bed by then. Dismissed!"
In the ensuing mad scramble, we dashed for our lockers searching frantically for our diaries (buried beneath mounds of random equipment and clothing) and pens. I managed to uncover my empty G.I. Diary, and hastily began scrawling my first entry, using the door of my locker as a writing surface.

The G.I. Diary (formerly known as the 莒光作文簿) is a particular feature of the ROC military, that brings to mind similar mandatory student diaries from grade school in Taiwan. In fact, all enlisted personnel are issued such a diary, and are expected to make weekly entries, which are then reviewed by their superiors, who write responses in red ink.

The weekly entries consist of two parts: A one page report on that week's required reading from the military Political Warfare Bureau's official magazine "The Struggle" (「奮鬥」), and one page written on personal thoughts, experiences, and developments over the past week. 

"The Struggle" - Incidentally, the name also applies to the Political Warfare Bureau's attempts to understand what the troops actually care about.

In practice, the required reading (mostly upbeat inspirational Chicken Soup for the Overworked Under Appreciated Enlisted Soul-type passages, or presidential speeches) was roundly ignored, with most troops electing to copy the original articles word for word with ludicrous spacing until the required one page length was met. I initially came up with the usual expected upbeat "I totally agree" responses, but in the interest of creative writing, eventually started incorporating surreal or sarcastic interpretations, along the lines of a Monty Python sketch. My superiors didn't care either way.

The second part - the weekly personal diary, leaves much more wiggle room. I mostly tended to write generically upbeat accounts on wholly unimportant topics, to which my superiors responded with generically upbeat words of encouragement. 

"This is my third day since induction. Compared to when I was getting off the bus three days ago, it seems that the pressure just keeps building, along with the volume of our superiors' voices. Everything has a time limit, and every action must be approved by my chain of command. Even though I'm still not used to it, after three days I've begun to get an idea of how things are done in the military. In order to command a company of 100+ troops, every action must be delegated from the top down. Every individual is a tiny component in the overall system that is the company, and must be managed in a systematic manner. I still have much to learn, but after knowing the above, I am confident that I can gradually adjust." 

 "I am sure that you will get used to things in short order."
-- 2nd Lieutenant H, Platoon Commander 

"I am certain that you'll be able to catch up to your leadership's footsteps over the course of these 37 days."
-- Sergeant 1st Class H

The diary does serve a practical purpose as a conduit for grievances, suggestions or comments, as well as a way for superiors to gauge the emotional state of the troops under their command. Any entries suggesting suicidal tendencies or interpersonal conflicts usually elicited rapid intervention from our NCOs or POA. Nonetheless, having to come up with filler material each week rapidly becomes tedious. On bad days, I'd be the first to tell you that the whole thing is a pointless exercise.

The G.I. Diaries aren't private, however. In fact, thanks to the autobiography and civilian life photos we were required to include within, it is quite popular for troops to exchange diaries to read up on mutual backgrounds, for gauging how we all looked before having our hair shaved off, who had the hottest girlfriend, as well as where we'd been. The photos of me backpacking through snowy mountain scenes in the US elicited considerable interest.

"It is 2149. You have 1 minute to turn in your G.I. Diaries and hit the sack!"

Scrawling down my last line of tortured logic, I handed in my G.I. Diary with seconds left to spare, and clambered into my bunk, stubbing my toe in the process as the lights went out. The barracks went dark, punctuated by the rustling of covers and muffled curses of recruits attempting to climb into their bunks. 

A faint glow emanated from a bunk at the far end of the barracks, as someone switched on a hidden cell phone - major contraband. This was followed 30 seconds later by loud noises of disapproval, as one of the drill sergeants made his presence known. The owner of the cell phone, a recruit who had been dubbed "Girly Man" (「娘炮」) by his squad mates, sobbed out loud with all the conviction of a child who had just been told that his pet dog died:

"You can't do this squad leader, new recruits are people too!"

Insensitive though it may be, hidden under our mosquito nets, the rest of us spent our last waking hours that day laughing into our pillows.