By Kyle Liang
Since the Japanese imperial takeover of Tainan, the southern capital of the once Taiwan Republic, the island of Taiwan has struggled for independence. For nearly 50 years, the Japanese presence was crossly prevalent. Then in World War II, Taiwan, as well as the rest of China, found themselves in a tug of war between Communist China, led by Mao Tse-tung, and Nationalist China, led by Chiang Kai-Shek. As a result, in 1943 the Allied Powers held the Cairo Conference in which they decided Taiwan’s fate. The Powers agreed with Chiang Kai-Shek’s request that Taiwan be “returned to China” and thus the island came under the ownership of Nationalist China. After World War II ended in 1945, the Allied Powers agreed to have Chiang’s troops “temporarily occupy Taiwan, on behalf of the Allied forces.” However, the stay was far from temporary, and with the passing of one evil—the Japanese—there came another.
Tensions between Taiwan and the Chinese Nationalist Party were at the utmost; conflict was on the verge of erupting. On February 28, 1947, an era known as the “White Terror” began in Taiwan. Roughly 2,000 Taiwanese men and women gathered in front of the Bureau of Monopoly in Taipei on this day in order to protest the unjustifiable, brutal beating of a woman cigarette peddler and the unwarranted killing of a bystander by police earlier that day. Chinese governor Chen Yi responded to the protest with machine guns, immediately killing several civilians. As uprisings continued to erupt, Chiang Kai-Shek sent troops to the island, leading to the death of over 30,000 Taiwanese men and women, followed by a period of arrests and sudden disappearances for decades…
It is 1964 and the Taiwan Republic of China is in a state of fear. For 21 years, every Taiwanese man has had to serve in the military following their high school graduation. The people of Taiwan are anticipating an attack or invasion on their small island off the southeastern coast of the mainland.
That year a child is born. Ming is the first son and only child of his generation. Ming’s mother and father are home much of the time, allowing them to provide Ming with the attention and affection a son would demand from his parents. His parents make sure his bed is in their bedroom during infancy so they can tend to him throughout the night. Ming’s father works for a successful trading company, which allows him to own multiple pieces of land, a car, fine clothes for his family, and to send Ming to prestigious schools in the capital of Taipei.
March 1st, that same year, a mother is lying on a hospital bed in Kaoshiung, dripping with sweat. She has just given birth to a silent baby. The doctor assisting in the delivery wraps his hands around the dark, new-born baby’s ankles, raises its feet into the air, letting the head hang in front of the mother’s bed and begins striking the child’s bottom with the palm-side of his open hand for what seems like hours until the hospital room hears the first cries of life.
It is 1980 and Ming is attending high school in the capital. Ming enjoys attending school each day and studying. Ming’s teachers tell his father that Ming is a well-behaved, intelligent young man. They say he has a promising future ahead of him. Ming often thanks his father for the opportunities given to him. During his second year of high school, Ming meets a girl and quickly falls in love.
It has been three years since Ta’s parents left for America with all of his siblings; Ta is now sixteen years old. With no one to cook for him, Ta eats noodles every night. It is not long before he grows to hate the taste. Ta works furiously every day in school to make up for his lack of company at home. Ta’s younger brother had not begun high school before leaving Taiwan and could therefore pursue an American education. Ta’s older brother stopped growing early in his adolescence and so was considered unfit to serve. Ta is the only family member left in Taiwan and he is counting down the days.
It is 1982 and Ming is preparing to attend college the following year with his girlfriend of two years. Word is spreading around the island of an opportunity overseas known as the American Dream. Hundreds of families have already gone on ships to North America in search of this opportunity. Ming’s mother and father begin asking everyone in town about the American Dream.
It is June 1984 and Ta is leaving the home where he has spent the past 20 years of his life in order to begin his service in the Taiwanese military.
In Taipei, Ming is gripping the sleeve of his girlfriend’s dress, crying. Ming’s parents left Taiwan on a ship to find the American dream, leaving Ming in Taiwan. Men over the age of sixteen cannot leave the island and are required to serve in the military. Without his parents, Ming cannot afford to attend college anymore.
It is 1985 and Ta has not had a single visitor since he started his mandated service. He sits in his bed some nights watching men, one after the other, walk out the doors of the barracks to greet family members on the other side and return to their bed with a smile on their face. Ta wishes for nothing more than a visitor.
Ming is on Base 629 in the mountains of Taiwan and has lost fifteen pounds since his entry into the service. Meals are given to everyone to share on one large plate. Ming was never a fast eater and the other men did not like to share. Every day the men are required to walk for hours from town to town in stiff, rigid, boots. There is not a day Ming does not have blisters on his feet. The men are allowed five-minute showers. The water is cold and the five minutes includes undressing and dressing. At night, there are men in his barracks lying in bed asleep, thrashing at their sheets, screaming.
It is 1986 and an old man carries his belongings onto Base 629 and into the barracks. All the other men know why he is here. Every year that he has been mandated to serve, he has attempted to escape. Every year he attempts to escape, he is caught. He is then thrown into prison and forced to begin his three years service again when he is released.
Later that month, there is a fire in the woods neighboring the base. All the men grab their tin toiletry bowls and run up to the fire. As they try to fan out the fire, one of the men steps onto a trap set in place by a hunter. The trap closes onto his leg and after that day the man never returns to serve on Base 629.
Each night, two men are required to walk around base for one hour carrying a gun. This is the only time the men carry guns. Tonight is Ta’s turn. Before the hour begins, Ta and his partner walk over to the bathrooms. On one side of the small restroom house are small, wooden stalls with doors in front of each and directly across from the stall doors is a long urinal meant for the use of many men. Ta’s partner walks into one the stalls on his left while Ta heads towards the urinal and turns to urinate with his back facing the doors. Several seconds later, there is a tremendous bang sound behind Ta. A stall door falls open and Ta’s partner pours onto the floor, head smashing into the ground next to Ta’s heels. Ta begins to scream. He cannot stop screaming. His face turns and he rips his zipper up. Blood is pouring out of his partner’s head and consuming the area of the ground by his feet. A man runs into the house, throws open the door, stops short, standing opposite the pool of blood bursts out, “What happened!” Ta’s face is contorted with fear and shock. He yells over the dead body through strained words, “Ming is dead.”
It is 2011 in Norwich, CT. I am at the side of the table, leaning against the backrest of my chair with a half-eaten plate of rice sitting slightly to my right. My father is at the head of the table, sitting back in his chair, hands folded, legs extended out, one crossed over the other, with an empty plate slightly to his left, and he is telling me the story of how one of the men he served with in the army killed himself in the bathroom of Base 629. I can hear my dad screaming as he tells me how the man’s head fell flat against the floor next to his boots and I can see the alarm on his face. In this moment I realize my ignorance, my previous inability to accept the profoundness of this world’s experiences that I have yet to, and perhaps never will, experience. My ignorance prevented my fifteen-year-old mind from grasping the idea of an experience so psychologically anguishing that it could fire a bullet through a man’s skull. It was not until after I recognized the shroud of ignorance I produced between my life and another’s—my father’s—that I could attempt to understand their lens: the way in which they view, perceive, interpret, and understand the world around them. Rather than concede to my ignorance, I must resist it in order to reach a genuine understanding. Once I revealed my ignorance to myself, I could attempt to understand and appreciate other people’s pasts and authors’ works in the contexts of their lives.