Three months ago I left my job to fulfil my duties as a Taiwanese citizen, something that every male in the country has to go through. Military service.
Military service in Taiwan has changed drastically over the decades. As Taiwan aims to have a completely voluntary military force, training for conscripts have changed from wielding guns to becoming community helpers at places such as the hospital, fire stations or police stations. Instead of serving as an armed soldier for a year, draftees now serve under government departments for most of the service duration instead. But before that happens, all draftees go through basic training at Taiwan’s main military camp (Cheng Kung Hill) for a short period of 12 days. This training aims to instill the spirit of obedience and submission into each and every draftee’s inner self. The aim is to break their self-esteem, self-respect, ego and their every bit of self-confidence that is left.
It was a Monday morning, my parents dropped me off at the train station. The draftees from my district were told to assemble at South Gate №2. We gathered, and walked to the platform to wait for the train, which was bound for the camp. 3 hours later, we switched to a tour bus and headed straight to the camp. Getting off the bus was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience, everyone who got off the bus was immediately yelled at by the team captains. Incredibly loud, they yelled at us to tuck everything including our jackets into our shorts/pants. Yes, our jackets! I couldn’t believe what I heard, neither could my counterparts.
Our initiation was a long process. A health check, a haircut (if you hadn’t got one already or it was remeasured as being too long), a shopping session (where you’d buy the essential items from the list that was given) and a quick tour around our team base. Though I had gotten my haircut a day earlier, reality really hit me once everyone got their “unique” haircut.
A fully shaved head is a symbol of order. You can’t be different to the person beside you. You must listen to the orders given to you without question and you must not have doubts. A three-minute shower is a three-minute shower, no more or you will be punished. Want to have a good shower? Maybe next time. The team captains will usually give us ten minutes to shower and use our phones to contact our family. How would you split your time? Three-minute shower and leave seven minutes to call? Or no shower at all? Some opted for no showers at all as they believed calling was far more important. And bear in mind that was the only time you were allowed to shower.
Every morning we would need to get ready at 6am and be prepared to go for a three kilometre run. Getting ready meant folding your blankets, mosquito nets, tidying up your shoe rack and wardrobe to a specific standard. For example, the blankets had to be folded into a cuboid-like shape with corners and edges straightened (by hand only), exactly like in the photo below. From every angle, it had to look symmetrical. The same was required for the mosquito nets. These would all be graded every day which contributed to your total score at the end of the 12 days and would be used to determine what time you could leave the camp on the last day. Every morning at 5am we would start folding, shaping and reshaping and RESHAPING the blankets and nets until it met what we thought was good enough. On average it took 45 minutes in total, but it turns out that 70% of the time we would still see a deduction on our grading sheet.
Dining etiquette was rather extraordinary too. We’d sit at long tables on either side facing each other, emotionless. Obviously, no talking, laughing nor giggling. There were quite a few TVs around, however, none of us were permitted to have one glance at it. “What the hell are you looking at?!”, the team captains would yell whenever one of us moved their eyeballs. Upon hearing “start”, we’d all pick up our chopsticks and bowls and frantically start devouring our food with the aim to finish eating as quickly as possible. This was so that we had enough time to fill our stomachs before we would hear “stop”. This routine would then repeat for the next 12 days.
These 12 days gave no place for creativity nor any kind of ingenuity but rather, rewards for following instructions. To many draftees in the camp, these 12 days felt like hell. They had never experienced what it was like to have control taken way from their everyday life. Unbearable, as some would say. But lucky it was only for 12 days. The 12 days quickly went by, and it was time to choose which government department you wanted to work for. This was really the first “choice” we had since training.
The choices included; the fire brigade, the police department, Ministry of Health and Welfare and the corrections department. Now, here’s how it works. Under every unit there are certain requirements (be it higher education or relevant skills) that could increase your chances of getting your first pick. Let’s take the Ministry of Health and Welfare for example. The roles they offer would most favor the draftees who are registered doctors, nurses, other health professionals, so on and so forth. And the next in line would be doctorates, then master’s etc. So unless you specialise in an area that they require or have a doctorate, you are essentially the last in line to take your pick.
In my batch of 600 odd draftees, this was the demographic: 55% of the draftees graduated with a master’s, 11 had doctorates and the rest had a bachelor’s degree or high school diploma. Given this demographic, having a master’s seems like the social norm. Does this really mean Taiwan is a country filled with scholars? The real question is, if Taiwan isn’t allocating these men to the armed forces, what is the real value in substitution service? And why limit the job opportunities these draftees have? These draftees are extremely well educated but the country has chosen to limit their potential during the year that is already, in most draftees’ minds, wasted.
So what did I end up “choosing”?