Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

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.


shawn said...

hi i going back to taiwan next month from LA and i'm joining the army too. The problem is that i cant read or write in chinese. Can i write in english in the diary ?

Haitien said...

From what I've heard, they'll probably let you write your diary in English. You may actually prefer things this way as most officers and NCOs will have no idea what you're writing about, and will be inclined to simply accept whatever you choose to put down. Some of your superiors will be reluctant to blast you for anything, especially if they think you can't understand them anyhow.

Your colleagues will probably find you to be interesting, and will repeatedly ask you to teach them English during your spare time. Many have learned their English from watching American movies, and some will repeatedly attempt to talk to you in what they consider to be English-sounding gibberish interspersed with the f-bomb and terms like "dude", and "hey man!"

Since travel abroad is rather common these days, you may find that several of your fellow new recruits have also lived abroad. There's a chance that your squad leader may have lived abroad himself, especially if he's a draftee (happened in my case).

The usual rule applies: Don't be a dick, and don't do anything anyone else isn't doing, and you'll do fine.

Jonathan Benda said...

It was interesting to see that the military is still using this kind of journal. I came across a 莒光作文簿 from 1979 and have been wondering ever since what became of the practice. Do your superiors "grade" the books? (The one I've got has grades (like 甲, 甲下, 乙, etc.).

Haitien said...

These days our superiors don't issue grades, they just review the entries for anything requiring immediate intervention, or convey any grievances or comments further up the chain of command.