The days ticked by as I wrapped up the last details of my civilian life. I had to quit my job and move all of my belongings out of my rented room in downtown Taipei and into a friend's apartment out in Taipei County. I stashed my motorcycle under the staircase of my old apartment building and covered it with cardboard, and the keys on my once-full key chain dwindled to none. I felt like a ship shedding its moorings as it prepares to head out across an uncharted ocean.
I had decided not to tell my family in America what was I was doing, knowing that if I did it would only worry them unnecessarily. I rented a post office box in Taipei to receive letters and a Hotmail account for email that I could check from Internet cafés. Hopefully nothing would happen during the next two years that would require my presence in the U.S. because I certainly wouldn't be able to leave Taiwan. I tried not to think about the possibility that I wouldn't survive the next two years, in spite of the slew of unexplained training accidents and mysterious maladies that had claimed far more soldiers' lives than a peacetime army should have to endure. And even assuming I could dodge those particular bullets, there was one prospect looming over the horizon that never failed to induce anxiety in the region: The People's Republic of China, with which we were technically still at war after 50 years. The PRC still rattled its saber now and then; I was gambling that they wouldn't attack just yet.
The day of my entry into the army arrived: February 26th, 1996 -- a Monday, of course.
I spent the night at a friend's house in the suburb of Sanchung, where I had stored all of the things I couldn't sell or throw away. That morning I struggled up at 6 a.m., put on some old clothes, and threw a few shirts into the red motorcycle helmet-bag that I had become accustomed to carrying. A friend drove me to the bus station in downtown Taipei. It hadn't sunk in yet, what I was about to do. It still seemed impossible, as if I were an actor in a play. A light drizzle began, the only semblance of day was a general lightening of the grayness surrounding the station.
Feeling rushed along by events beyond my control, I got on a bus to Hsinchu. I was destined for the training center at Guan-dong Bridge, on the outskirts of the city. Although I had lived in Hsinchu for a time with my adopted family, I had never been out that way. The reputation that preceded it, however, was not encouraging. Guan-dong Bridge was supposed to be one of the toughest boot camps in Taiwan. Taiwanese refer to the most famous of the training centers with adjectives such as "Happy," "Tough and Bloody," or, in the Guan-dong Bridge's case, Lei-sha Guan-dong Qiao, which roughly means "So tired you can't think straight."
By the time we reached Hsinchu a couple of hours later the rain was hard and steady. In Taiwan rains frequent the spring, not to mention summer and winter, which accounts for the verdant mountain scenery as well as the old Portuguese nickname for the Island, Ihla Formosa. Indeed, the more-or-less constant humidity that makes the summer heat so oppressive works equally well in making the winter cold seem much worse than the actual temperature indicates.
I got off the bus and walked several blocks to the combination Northern District Government Offices/Municipal Baseball Stadium to find a small crowd of people waiting nearby the ticket counters. As I approached, I could see that the crowd was made up of about 50 young men, most of whom were surrounded by various relatives and friends. Five or six of them had already shaved their heads completely bald. My brown hair was past shoulder length and pulled into a ponytail in back. People had warned me that the base barbers were butchers and that I should get my hair cut off before I went, but I was adamant that my golden locks' final destination be the floors of Guan-dong Bridge. The real reason was that I didn't want to spring for a haircut when it seemed to me that I could get nearly the same one for free.
I went up to a table behind which sat a couple of nondescript civil servants and obtained, in exchange for my draft orders, a small round sticker with an ROC flag, a gold border and the words "Love your country, love your home. Hsinchu North District, Army #1748T'" to affix to my shirt. The lack of any space on the sticker for my name, though not unexpected, still seemed a foreboding reminder of our worth as individuals.
Since most of the guys were busy saying goodbye to their girlfriends or chatting with their families, I didn't get to meet anyone in the parking lot. I got a few strange looks after I put the sticker on -- looks that seemed to say, "What is this foreigner doing here? And why is he wearing a draft sticker?" But no one said a word to me. I was wondering exactly when the drill sergeants that you always see in movies were going to pop out of the woodwork and start yelling at us and treating us like dirt, but there weren't any. As if by design, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and we were told to get on the buses. Feeling again like a twig caught up in a torrential river, I got on the crowded vehicle. There weren't enough seats for everyone, and I had to stand, but soon we were off.
And then we were lost.
In the old days Guan-dong Bridge Training Center was located out in the countryside, but the city of Hsinchu had grown so much that now all that separated it from the city proper was an industrial park, which was still being built at the time, so that the roads were a muddy mess and our civilian driver didn't know how to get there. The training center was there, just visible across the vast construction site, a sprawling complex of brooding gray-and-white buildings huddled against the dark green of the hills behind, but there seemed no way across. The driver tried different combinations of corners and U-turns, but each one seemed to culminate in a dead end. The sky was dark again by now and more heavy rain seemed inevitable.
"If we can't find the place, does that mean we don't have to go in the army?" I joked awkwardly during one particularly long pause while the driver consulted a hand-drawn map. I tend to become talkative when I'm nervous. No one replied; everyone seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts. Perhaps that was why nobody was paying any attention to the fact that an obvious foreigner with a ponytail was being inducted into the army along with them. I tried to strike up a conversation with the guy next to me, but he was just as distracted as everyone else. There was a cloud of suspense and apprehension verging on outright dread on that bus, as if no one wanted to violate the unknown, as if offending it would cause even more dire circumstances to occur.
Eventually the driver did find his way to the base. From my standing position all I could see as we bounced over speed bumps were the pant legs of the Military Policemen as they waved us in. I wondered what they thought of us. It was drizzling again when I stepped off the bus and onto an enormous parade ground where 30 or so tables, each facing several benches, were set up. We were directed to various tables according to some invisible system and told to sit down and wait until the benches were full. As we sat down, we were each given a serial number that was to become our military ID number. Each number began with a Chinese character and an English letter. Mine began with Tian (sky or heaven) followed by the letter A and the number 981643.
Soon my area was full of nervous young men, and a silent man in the uniform of a sergeant appeared. He carried a large, white sign on a stick not unlike those carried by protesters. The placard's big red letters politely asked us to "Follow me, please." Standing there with the sign over his head, the sergeant seemed almost like a cartoon character with a dialogue bubble. I almost smiled at the idea, despite my nervousness. Or maybe because of it.
He led us into one of the nearby three-story concrete buildings that bordered the parade grounds. "Here you will receive your uniform and accessories," the sergeant told us curtly. "Line up and take one of each item."
We went around the room, receiving olive-drab pants, long-sleeved shirts and short-sleeved shirts, black belts with brass buckles exactly like those of my Boy Scout uniform so many years before, dull olive-drab T-shirts with "Army" imprinted in Chinese on the left breast, bright green sweat suits and shorts, black combat boots, white running shoes, underwear, socks, and two short elastic green laces with metal hooks on each end that served no purpose that I could discern. Finally we all lined up in a sort of loose formation, everyone with all of their new possessions piled around them. There were 109 of us in that room that morning.
"Now strip down and put everything into your personal luggage. Then put on your uniforms." The sergeant's tone was a tad more urgent than it had been just a moment before. Guys rushed to strip naked and stuff their civilian clothing -- including shoes and any jewelry -- into their bags before putting on the unmarked olive-drab uniforms. Soon everyone had finished changing. It was more than just a change of clothes, however. Up until then it had felt sort of like a tour, but now it was clear that we were destined to be a part of this place. I felt rather self-conscious about the ponytail hanging down my back. Maybe I should have gotten my hair cut on the outside, I thought, as my friends had suggested. Some of the more corpulent members of our group couldn't find properly fitting uniform parts and started complaining. The sergeant addressed all of these concerns with one sharp order: "Upstairs. Now."
On the second floor we found the barracks that would be our new home. They consisted of one long room lined with aluminum bunk beds. Each bed slept four guys, two on top and two on bottom, so that about half of us could sleep in this room. The remaining 50-odd guys would sleep in identical barracks on the third floor. On top of each wooden plank that comprised the bed was a solid mat about an inch thick, with all the softness of plywood. This was covered with a dark green wool blanket. Aluminum rails guarded the sides, and neatly arranged on each bunk were various items such as utility belts, canteens, steel helmets and neatly folded thick white quilts. At one end of the room were rows of dark red wooden lockers, each about a foot square, and a couple of doors. Behind one was the storeroom, into which we tossed all of our bags containing personal stuff. The sergeants' quarters were apparently behind the other.
It was lunchtime, and we were led downstairs to the room in which we had been issued our uniforms. The uniform gear had disappeared; in its place were several tables, a large vat of noodles and several stacks of gleaming steel bowls beside equally clean steel chopsticks. As we dug in -- some of us sitting on tables, some squatting on the floor -- several short, squat middle-aged women entered the room carrying bundles of sheets and electric shears. Those of us who had finished eating were told to line up in front of a woman. Being a habitually slow eater, I was at the back of the line and got to watch most of the shearing. It went quickly, and I felt almost relieved to get a haircut more befitting my attire, at least until I went up to the bathrooms to wash the stubble off my head and looked in the mirror. I was shocked to see a reflection so radically different from the one I had woken up to that morning.
I splashed my newly shaven head and went back downstairs. This was another small shock, for whereas I had left what seemed like a roomful of similarly dressed tourists, I rejoined a company of soldiers. And I was one of them. The sergeant, however, didn't leave us much time to ponder this concept. His tone was becoming more urgent and biting with every sentence. Now other sergeants were arriving on the scene, seemingly coming out of nowhere.
Soon we were upstairs in the barracks again. "Line up!" the first sergeant barked. The politeness was gone. First we were taught how to tie our boots the army way, and then we found out what the little hooked elastic bands were for. They were called bang tui or "wrap legs," and were used to hold our uniform pant legs in place by stretching them around the ankles and hooking around the insides of the rolled-up cuffs, quite effectively cutting off circulation to the ankles and feet, which, considering the amount of stress which would eventually be placed on those particular areas, was probably not such a bad idea.
The sergeant then recited to us, line by line, a song -- one we would be singing every morning for the next two years and one that most Taiwanese men know by heart: "Feng yun qi, Shan he dong, Huangpu Jianjun sheng shi xiong!" ('The wind and clouds rise, the mountains and rivers tremble. The soldiers of Whampoa look and sound tough!'). It was just the first of a whole slew of army songs we would be required to memorize. The reference was to the Whampoa Military Academy near Shanghai where the ROC army was founded amid national chaos in the 1920s, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
Things were definitely becoming more tense. A general air of urgency materialized as even more sergeants appeared. At least the rain had stopped. The 109 of us, we were told, made up Company 3, part of the 1st Battalion. Within the company were three platoons, each platoon made up of three or four units. They lined us up in block formation by height and assigned each man a number. There was only one guy there taller than me, and his height exceeded mine by at least five or six centimeters. His name was Ye Yun-long, but he would be referred to as #001, pronounced dong-dong-yao, which made me #002, or dong-dong-liang.
"From now on, you will refer to yourself and fellow recruits not only by name, but also by number, preceded by the title Xin-bing Zhan-shi," the sergeant recited to us. He had obviously given this speech many times before. Although our flattering new designation translated roughly to 'Recruit-warrior,' I felt more like a chess piece -- one of the more expendable ones.
"You will always use the full title! Also! You are not allowed to use pronouns! You will use the proper name for whatever or whomever you are talking about. You may not allow the words 'You,' 'me,' 'him,' or 'it' to escape your mouths! Is that understood?"
Other than a few muttered 'Yes's, there was silence. The sergeant seemed rather put out, shook his head and resumed: "When you asked a question you will answer! When you speak, you will begin your statement, whatever it may be, with 'Baogao (Reporting)' then the title of the person you are addressing. In my case you would say 'Baogao Banzhang' (reporting to Unit Leader). When any officer calls you, you respond by saying 'You!' (Here!) Do you understand?"
"Baogao Banzhang! Understood!" most of us managed to say, in a collusion of semi-loud voices.
"Eh? What was that?"
"Baogao Banzhang! Understood!!" It was again louder this time, but the sergeant was still not satisfied. Needless to say this went on for some time, until we got it right. Or I guess it was right. The only thing the sergeant did before we stopped was shake his head and sigh.
"Ok, right face! March!" We marched, or made some attempt at a semblance of marching, out to the ring road surrounding the parade grounds and the obstacle course. At one end of the parade square was a stage-like pavilion, and at the other was a large stately four-story building we would later come to know as Brigade HQ. Our destination was the base supply store, which was brand new and a vast improvement over the old one, which had been right next to our barracks but consisted of a tent and concrete structure located on a platform perched atop the base perimeter wall.
Inside the store we were handed our Whampoa Duffel Bags: large, dark green bags with the ROC army insignia printed on the back, into which we stuffed our toothbrushes, toothpaste, wash-pans, wash-cloths, shower sandals, sewing kits, brushes, and the army's preferred brand of laundry detergent. To this day, the smell of that particular brand is one of two scents that bring back vivid memories of boot camp. The other is Diesel fuel. We were also issued heavy brown journals titled "Military Journey: A Record of Thoughts." All of this kit had to be inscribed with our numbers. I got confused and wrote the wrong number on my sandals several times, which turned out to be good later as they were easily identifiable, being now more black than the original blue and white. All of our clothing had to be marked as well, in order to avoid confusion and prevent theft.
Armed with our toiletries, we marched back to the barracks, where we deposited them into our lockers. Then we were assigned bunks. Being #002 meant that I was on the lower bunk right next to the lockers and one of the doors. On the bunk next to me was #004, an academic-looking fellow with glasses who had been known in civilian life as Shi Xi-sheng. On top, next to Ye Yun-long, was #003, a wiry, dark-skinned guy named Guo Jin-shui, who preferred to be called Ah-zui.
That afternoon we were led to the mess hall, which turned out to be a large auditorium-like room in the building located right behind our barracks. There we underwent a basic physical check-up, running around and lining up in flimsy open robes and underwear. It was then that I noticed a group within our group, composed mostly but not exclusively of overweight guys, many of whom had been among those complaining about snug uniforms. Some of them still wore their sneakers, as no boots would fit them. They seemed to have prepared for the physical, producing voluminous notes and lengthy explanations as to why they couldn't be in the army. The physicians listened patiently but seemed to take no further action at the time. It wasn't the last time I would notice that particular section of the company.
There were no more requests or suggestions. All communication came in orders, and I guess the officers in charge figured they had given us enough time to adjust. We spent a lot of time that afternoon being instructed how to turn left and right, how to turn around, how to walk, to run, to squat, and to kneel.
"Gui Xia! (Kneel!)," came the order. Immediately we all fell to our knees, something that has quite a bit of significance in Chinese society. It is not a gesture taken lightly, and is usually only seen in movies when the pupil/son/inferior has committed some great wrong or injustice to his teacher/parents/superior and is in the act of dramatically begging forgiveness. When the instructor, who was now wearing a red-white-and-blue sash over his shoulder, saw us kneel, he wasn't too happy. "ROC soldiers NEVER kneel in subservience! Only kneel on one knee!" Squatting was also on one ankle, one leg in front and one in back. It wouldn't be comfortable for long in ordinary shoes; in combat boots it quickly became painful. Accordingly, this turned out to be a popular form of punishment, and we soon found ourselves squatting for great lengths of time, or listening to the sergeant give a rapid-fire series of orders: "Squat! Stand up! Squat! Stand up! SquatStandupSquatStandupSquat..." The reason for this (and a great many other things) was that it would be hard to prove such exercises had broken any of the recently implemented rules against unreasonable punishment. All of the new rules were going up against a veritable tradition of punishment at Guan-dong Bridge, a tradition that had been handed down from generation to generation of drill sergeants over the course of several decades. Naturally there was going to be some conflict of interest, as most of the drill sergeants saw their primary mission as the successful completion of our training, no matter how it was done.