Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

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.


shawn said...

how come you can update your blog every few days ? they let you use internet ?

shawn said...

so are you saying we can eat instant noodle instead of mess hall food ? How much money can we bring into the base ?

Haitien said...

There's no Internet use on base, thanks to operational security (OPSEC) concerns. Some troops attempt to circumvent this by bringing smart phones, which are also contraband. I wouldn't recommend bringing one during basic training - chances are you won't have time to use it anyhow.

As for me, I've finished my service term lately, and figured I'd write about my experience as a form of catharsis. Hopefully someone will find it useful.

You can bring as much money on base as you'd like, but I recommend no more than NT$1000, mostly in change and small bills. There will inevitably be thieves and pickpockets in the barracks, so you might as well cut your potential losses. Additionally, you probably won't be visiting the PX much anyhow.

Whether or not you can stockpile snacks depends on your company CO. Some allow it, some don't. I reccomend eating at the mess hall. Instant noodles will take up your rest time (everyone has to go to the mess hall carrying trays), your meager paycheck, and really aren't that filling anyhow.

shawn said...

so i cant take pics of myself my squad in army ? and i'm curious how much is the paycheck every month

shawn said...

sorry i have lots of question. :(
im not ready for it

Haitien said...

Posting pictures of yourself on base online is a sure way of getting busted. Cameras are contraband unless they're for official use.

You will have an official portrait taken your second day of basic training, which you have the option of purchasing prints for.

Your paycheck during basic is something like NT$5500 per month (assuming you're a conscript). There are bonuses to that after you're deployed, depending on your unit and specialty, usually around an additional NT$500 - 1000. You will also get a slight bump of about NT$500 after 6 months when you get automatically promoted to E-2.

If you're deployed to one of the offshore islands, you end up with a big bonus of around NT$4000.

Haitien said...

No one goes in fully prepared. Just take it as a unique experience and do it! The more time you spend thinking about getting out, the slower things'll go.

shawn said...

is the life better after 37 days of boot camp ? Do you get to go out ?

Haitien said...

Yes and no. Boot camp has a bit more shock value since you're just coming in from civilian life. However, after you've been in for a few months, you'll find that basic is a simpler environment - there's you, your fellow recruits, and your superiors. Once you get deployed, you'll also have to contend with troops who have been around longer than you have. Much of the military runs off a seniority (學長學弟制) system, that takes some getting used to. When you start out, you will be the lowest thing there is in the military.

You get two 3 day leave periods during basic. Subsequently, you accumulate leave time based on the number of weekends and national holidays each month. You may or may not be able to enjoy them during that particular month, depending on staffing requirements. If not, you accumulate them, and hopefully get it made up to you before you're discharged.

shawn said...

so did u get the rank of E3 when your service is done ?

Haitien said...

No, E-3 comes after 1.5 years. At most draftees only serve 1 year under the current system.

If you see an E-3 on base after you're deployed, be respectful. It means he's career, and at the top of the junior enlisted pecking order.

shawn said...

can a E3 command someone or only
班长 E4 and higher ?

Haitien said...

Officially, E-3s can't command anyone.

Unofficially, inexperienced E-4s and O-1s know better than to try to go toe to toe with an E-3 who's been in the unit for a few years.

shawn said...

did your squad leader ask everyone if they wanna sign on ?and how long is it ?

is there any PT after basic training

what did you do after the 37 days of training ?

Haitien said...

Yes, yes, and it depends on where you're deployed to.

I'll eventually get to those things.

shawn said...

so are all E4 班長 ? i wanna be squad leader i think it is cool. i have been watching rookies diary (新兵日记)

Haitien said...

班長 (squad leader) refers to anyone who commands a squad, not specifically during basic training. You won't get to be a drill sergeant unless you end up being deployed as an E-4 to one of the reserve battalions running basic training. To be deployed as an E-4 you either have to test into it prior to being drafted, or be selected to fill an open NCO slot after a few months in your unit. Even then, there's a few months of additional NCO training before you get that thick chevron. If you can't read Chinese though, I'd say your chances for that are close to nil.

Most squad leaders during basic are career E-5s and above.

The TV show is entertaining, if a bit over the top. Nonetheless, many of the situations are familiar. You will gain a better appreciation for it after you've actually been through it yourself.

shawn said...

i was reading your blog and you said you were draft to air force. Do you have to return the army uniform ?

Haitien said...

You are issued a set of unmarked BDUs at the end of basic training. The Army and Air Force use the same BDU design. The Navy and Marines run their own basic training courses elsewhere.

Dress uniforms for your service branch are not issued unless your unit is one where you'll be expected to wear one.

shawn said...

Thanks for answering all my questions. I appreciate it :)

Haitien said...

No problem. I understand where all the anxiety comes from. Just relax, accept military life for what it is, and don't be afraid to step up when the situation calls for it.

Your time in the military is what you make of it. It can either be a waste of time, or one of those things where you saw and did things that you wouldn't have otherwise seen and done.

shawn said...

hi .. i was watching the drama and they were talking about calling 1985 if you want to make a complain. Does that number 1985 really exist or just drama ?