Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

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!

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