I come from a long line of men who have served in the army. My Ah-Gong (Grandpa) was a pilot, my dad was in the army, and my brother had just finished not too long ago. It’s the norm for boys to go into the army. Well, it’s the law. For some reason, The Republic of China (or for anybody who doesn’t care about the politics: Taiwan), holds the belief that men need to be disciplined by serving in the military. Even if it means fighting for a small army that wouldn’t stand a chance in battle without foreign support. My family has lived in The Republic of China for generations, before the mass diaspora of immigrants left. For someone who has never spent more than two months there, my little green passport book determined that I needed to go back to serve…
Chenggong Ling or The Camp of Success is a military training camp in the middle of nowhere, west side on the island of Taiwan. The sun always beams brighter there due to the lack of tall buildings to provide any shade. It has been there since the early 20th century, and has spat out generations after generations of military patriots.
The Soldier sat in the cafeteria, among a sea of green t-shirts and camo shorts. Out of habit, he reached for his hair that was no longer there. A couple of months ago, he was excited about his perm but never mind. He gently patted his scalp. It felt smoother than his freshly shaven forearm.
“You have to go,” his dad used to say, “otherwise you won’t be considered a man.”
A belief that was so ludicrous to him now. It seemed like wearing camouflage and sleeping in bunkbeds was what would turn a boy into a man. “Boy.” The Soldier thought. This boy has had a full-time job, multiple serious relationships, financial independence, and two near overdoses. And yet apparently it was this boot camp that would push him over the line towards manhood. But that was how his family thought. Hell, that was how most of China thought. Maybe.
“Ow, fuck” I said, trying not to scream. The Artist stopped and leaned back. She found it funny, I’m sure she did.
“Gee, your pain tolerance is shit,” The Artist said, then she leaned in and started tracing the outline again. The buzzing of the machine only made it worse. I wouldn’t be flinching so much if the tattoo gun wasn’t that loud. Maybe stick-and-pokes spoiled me.
“Oh, give me a break,” I grunted, trying my 100% best not to scream. This was the fourth tattoo The Artist gave me. I found her via friends living in East Vancouver. My other pieces were on my shoulders and back. They hurt, but not as much as this one.
“With your intolerance, they’re going to eat you alive there.” She laughed.
“Ha ha. You think I don’t know that?” I was nearly out of breath and we were only 10% done. I guess the forearm’s more sensitive than I thought.
Voices came from all over the cafeteria. It was annoying. The Soldier focused on using his chopsticks to cut a marinated chicken leg on his plate. Food was probably the only thing he was familiar with in Taiwan. The fact that he got to wear t-shirts 24/7 helped but he was not used to the unforgiving humidity. With the amount of energy spent constantly exercising, he should have been hungry but instead, the heat made him sick and the chicken’s smell filled him with disdain. Disdain towards the system where he had to do this shit, disdain for political discussions, disdain for the heat and humidity and everything. Someone at his table won’t stop talking.
“What’re your parents?” the guy with a fancy watch on his wrist asked him.
The Soldier didn’t know enough about local politics to weigh in. He’s never voted before. He just wished that Fancy Watch would leave him alone. He forced himself to reply. “They’re pretty Kuomingtang*.”
“Yeah that’s the way to do it. Those Mingjintangs* are gonna ruin the country.” Fancy Watch said while still chewing. He raised his glass to The Soldier, then washed down whatever was in his mouth.
As far as The Soldier was aware, both parties seemed equally useless. He watched the others nod along as Fancy Watch went on talking about Taiwan independence, same sex marriage, and the working class. All hot takes. At least for someone coming in from abroad.
“So, what’ll the people be like?” The Artist asked over the tattoo gun’s buzzing.
“All I know is that there’ll be a sea of soldiers and I’ll be one of them. You know, I can probably name every other person in Mount Pleasant but I know nobody back there.” I said, almost disappointed in myself. I really didn’t know anybody back there. The bits of interaction I’ve had were usually with family, which were pretty much just a political shitshow. All my family friends thought I was pretentious and a traitor for staying in Canada longer than I had to.
“How’s your girlfriend?” The Artist asked after a moment, as if she was making small talk to distract me from the pain. God bless her and her Vancouverite sensitivity.
“Girlfriend?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah, the petite one with the piercings.”
As if that narrowed things down. “Uhh, there were a lot of those, but the most recent one was at least eight months ago.”
“Wow we haven’t seen each other for a while. Anybody else interesting these last eight months?”
“Not really, just your usual. Girls with colored hair, boys vintage clothing. You know my type.” I chuckled.
“He talks too much.” The skinny one wearing plastic rim glasses who was sitting next to him suddenly whispered to him, “You’re the foreign guy, right?”
How foreign can I be if I’m in the fucking army? “Yeah, Canada.”
“You affiliated with a gang? Because that’s what’s been going around camp. With your tattoos and such. There are gangs in Vancouver?” Glasses continued.
“Not a gang, just artsy stuff.” The Soldier rubbed his forearm. The tattoo had finished scabbing but it still itched sometimes. He was impressed that Glasses pieced together that he was from Vancouver.
“They better appreciate my art down there,” The Artist said, half-joking.
“I can assure you they won’t,” I told her. “Tattoos mean something else there. My mom literally told me once to not ‘ci long ci feng,’ which literally means get a shit ton of dragon and phoenix tattoos. I’m guessing if it’s popular enough to be an expression, it’s gotta be a trend.”
“Is it kinda like tribal tattoos over there?” she asked.
“Without the appropriation and colonialism, but similar.”
“Oh how is your academic ass going to survive?” she joked.
We both laughed. “Oh, don’t remind me how pretentious I am. Before coming here I checked out the murals and went to Pulp Fiction and Iron Dogs, like usual. So yeah, I’ll fit in at a boot camp in rural Taiwan.”
“The local bookstore enthusiast will become The Soldier in a matter of weeks.” The Artist chuckled and continued onto the second line. More than halfway there.
It came as a complete surprise to him that he started enjoying Glasses’ company. He found Glasses to be a fairly stereotypical Taiwanese teen. Played badminton, studied chemistry, and drank more alcohol than he could handle. “Growing up all my parents wanted was for me to graduate high school and go abroad. They tried so hard to make me a foreigner. But alas, they couldn’t even afford me an English tutor. All I did was explore the internet all the while stuck on this island.” Glasses told him. Glasses did this very Taiwanese thing where he threw in Taiwanese dialect into a Mandarin sentence. His accent reminded him of his Grandma’s house where his relatives chatted away at the Mahjong table. A harmless piece of nostalgia before The Soldier was ever in Canada.
“Do you even have friends there?” The Artist asked me at another attempt to distract me from the pain, obvious from my facial expressions.
“Family friends. But even then, none of them are going into the army this year. They’re all done. I just took my sweet time because I wanted to finish my undergrad first.”
“Oh boy, who’s going to talk about Canadian literature with you then?” she said, still finding this entire situation oddly funny.
“Nobody. It’ll probably be an out-of-body experience.” I answered, as the thought dawned on me more. I will have nobody there. All the stuff I’ve dedicated my life to for the past four years will be a language to the people back home as foreign as Quebecois was to me. The tattoo gun drilled Canadian language into my skin and marked me with Canadian ink. The needle hurt but it was a familiar pain that brought me comfort.
After moving to Vancouver, I knew for sure that I didn’t belong in my family. It was almost inevitable for someone like me not to be sucked into the politically progressive portal that young college students here were so taken with.
My mom took it well when I first hinted to her that I was trying to figure out my sexuality but later when I told her about a boy I was seeing, the waterworks started. “I didn’t know you meant it,” she had said, “how could you just drop that on us?” And since then, those were the only kinds of exchanges he have had with his parents. Things seemed to have improved recently, though not because of accepting my bisexuality but by avoiding it.
For someone who has never fit in with their family, Vancouver was a safe haven. Bet every white savior in the Lower Mainland perked up when they had heard that. I was giving them exactly what they had wanted to hear. But who cares, at least I was comfortable here. The funny thing was, I would not have even known about how ridiculously conservative my family was if they had never sent me to Vancouver.
“What do you do for fun?” Glasses asked him as they walked out of the convenient store on camp, each holding a cold bottle of Oolong tea.
The Soldier was hesitant. He already knew from countless family dinners that the topic opened a minefield of things that people judged him for. He chose to be honest anyways, thinking that Glasses didn’t seem like someone who could be too hurtful. “Reading, I guess.”
“Oh, that’s cool, I don’t really read in English but I’ve definitely read some translations.”
The Soldier looked pleasantly surprised.
“What, you didn’t think there were readers in this camp?” Glasses asked sarcastically.
“Nah, it’s just… I don’t know,” he answered. “Usually family members would just say that I am being pretentious or whitewashed, you know.”
“You do know that this isn’t a country full of radical conservatives, right?”
“Uh, I guess not?”
“Ok, which part of the island are you from?” Glasses asked as if that would explain everything.
“Tamsui area.” The Soldier actually didn’t know. All he knew was that it was up North. So he just responded with the last station that the red MRT line took him, whatever that line was called.
“Oh man, that’s not too far from here!” Glasses exclaimed as if he’s already figured The Soldier out. “You’ve been to the city, right? You have to come to Taipei East Side with me when we’re out. You’ll have a new outlook on this island.”
Of course The Soldier has been to the East District, it was the only place he saw clothing that he actually wore: overalls, tiny hats, letterman jackets. “Alright, change my mind about this place. Somebody has to.”
Glasses took a long swig of his Oolong tea and let out a sigh of satisfaction. Droplets of water ran from the bottle down onto his forearm. “If my parents ever saved up for an English tutor, I feel like I’d be where you are at right now.”
“Well if you help me find a group of people that aren’t raging conservatives here, I’ll fulfill your missed childhood opportunity and teach you English.”
Glasses smiled and raised his plastic bottle as if to toast. “Deal.”
The Artist focused really hard on getting the “9” right in “49°.”
“You really do love Vancouver do yah?” she said. “Like, enough to permanently mark your arm with its latitude.”
“It’s home for me at this point,” I told her. “Plus, it’s subtler than having the map of Metro Van on my forearm.” We both laughed.
“Well, I’m honored to be the one to do this piece. Something to remind you of home when you’re doing all the army stuff I guess. Alright college boy,” she stood up, “it’ll be $130 in total.” I e-transferred her the money, adding on $20 like I always did. This was my last stop before I flew home.
She wrapped my arm with a layer of clear film to protect the tattoo and we hugged. The tattoo had stopped hurting already. A foreign force can only hurt for so long. I stared at it, fresh and bleeding.
The Soldier stared at it, fully healed. He traced his fingers along the “49°” and thought about his days in Vancouver, my days in Vancouver. My tattoo appointment with The Artist. I missed home. Then I thought about what it was that I missed. Was I separated from home by an indirect, 14-hour flight with a layover in Hong Kong? Where exactly is Chenggong Ling, The Camp of Success?
Evan Yu is an emerging writer based in Vancouver and Ottawa. He was born in Beijing, China, to Taiwanese parents. After moving to Vancouver at the age of 18, he splits his time between Mainland China, Taiwan, and Canada. He graduated from The University of British Columbia in 2021. Find him on Instagram @vanovichnovich!
Wendi Ma is an Illustrator and Designer based in Vancouver. Born in China, raised in Tokyo and Vancouver, she developed her interest in sharing her worldview and experiences as a person with cross-cultural background through art. Fluently speaking three languages, she is passionate about communicating emotion through her pieces. She currently works as an illustrator and Designer at IBM. Her work is available @ wendy-ma.com