Rise and Shine

Slant News: How I Survived My First Day Of Mandatory Military Service In Korea
North By Northwestern: Rise and Shine: Opening Chapter of Korean Boy’s 21 Months

By Walter Ko

In the midst of blistering cold, I stand at the entrance of the boot camp at Nonsan, South Korea. Still not used to my shaved head, I walk a long trail of regrets and fear along with others whose names I did not know. There’s a guy weeping in worry while his mother is trying her best to make him calm. An announcement through the speaker reminds me that there only remain 30 minutes until I say farewell to the world for nine weeks. There are hundreds of pre-soldiers, blind to their future, saying bland words of comfort for their families. My grandmother grabs my hand while tears run down her face. Clearly, she doesn’t want to let go her favorite grandson.

I am only blaming the country, asking myself why South Korean citizenship grants me this “honorable” opportunity to hold up arms and wear uniform. I never shot a rifle before. Most importantly, I never thought this day would come. But here I am. Thousands of South Korean citizens have once stood here, most likely feeling the same way I do. The announcement calls for all soldiers to be gathered at the hall, and I share warm hugs with my family, trying to hide my tears with my jacket. Two years may not seem long for some people, and military service may seem like a joke for many, but everyone who has held up arms for South Korea knows what it takes to be in the army and how tough it is to let these two years glide by.

The drill sergeant isn’t smiling. People are trembling in fear. I am scared indeed, but everybody’s a stranger to one another, and no one is present to comfort me. Thrown into the world of strangers, I am shaking, continuously telling myself, “I can do it.” Do what? I’m the one being “instructed,” and there’s no smart way around it.

“Are you fucking listening to me, private?”

The sudden shout drags me out from inner-self. Oh, I forgot to answer my name. I start pushing, on and on until the drill sergeant is satisfied. After a dozen repetitions, I am at my limit. No more, please. I beg you. But reality is cruel when you’re alone. I sweat while the blizzard strikes my hand. Others are most likely, I assume, mocking me, looking down on me, categorizing me. Maybe some will understand. They are by themselves, too. As I am issued clothing and personal hygiene items to be used for nine weeks, the drill sergeants demand I change into my uniform and pack the clothes I’ve been wearing to be sent home. The moment I wrap the box, I smell my coat. A Marlboro Red — a sip of vodka — the chicken curry I had last night — scent of my grandmother’s shoulders. I could have smelled my underwear too, but that would be too much. I still feel all the sweat from nervousness and dreadfulness, I still feel it — I have no need to be reminded.

Dinner time has come. I line up, still not talking to anyone. Today is the memorable day. I haven’t talked to anybody for seven hours straight. What a record. As I’m given my portion of food, I devour it as fast as I can. Choking on rice, my eyes in tears, I still go on. Social awkwardness is not what I’m used to, but I’m hungry. All I did was stand in the same posture, look around to see if I know anyone, and yawn, sometimes, for no reason.

As it nears 10 p.m., it is time for “mandatory” sleep. While laying out my sleeping mat and a stiff pillow on a hard wooden floor, I finally realize that I left the box I’ve been in. Now, I’m surrounded by strangers I know nothing of. Now, I have to eat and sleep in the most uncomfortable environment of a lifetime. Lights are out, and drill sergeant walks up and down the floor, matching every first-day soldier’s face with his name. I close my eyes, and start paying attention to the sounds of the room. To my left are people snoring. To my right are people shifting left and right, pulling out their feet from their blankets to find the most comfortable position they can be in. I didn’t even know how I endured 13 hours at this place, and I have no clue at all how I’m going to survive the next 9 weeks of boot camp. They did not provide me with any plans for the future. I just do as they say. Hopefully I will learn from it. It is a possibility this moment is also a learning experience. Unready to face tomorrow’s sunlight, I distance myself from reality, riding a train to the land of dreams. People I have known are saying goodbye to me.

Bye. Please miss me. Send me letters.

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