I cried three times during my period of mandatory service in the South Korean army. The first was at boot camp when I realized I had been stripped of my civilian lifestyle overnight — my phone, my clothes, even my name (they called me trainee No. 122). The second was when I got tear gassed. The third was incident with the chocolate milk.
Prior to achieving the rank of a private, everyone conscripted starts with five weeks at boot camp, acquiring rudimentary skills such as how to shoot a gun, throw a grenade and put on a gas mask in under 12 seconds. Above all else, we learn obedience. Blind, unqualified obedience. They tell us to run a lap; we run a lap. They tell us to run a lap with 50 pounds of gear strapped to our backs; we do exactly that. They can teach a man how to pull a trigger in a day, but scraping away his thought takes longer. It takes about five weeks.
The end of those five weeks produced mixed reactions. Some trainees could not hide their smiles as they attached the insignia of a private to their chest, fixing the single black bar countless times until it made a perfect line. Others knew, however, that privates started as everyone’s punching bag. The next day, we would all be sent on trains and buses to our respective units. There, we would live out the remaining 20 months of our service.
Our squad stayed up late that night, the guy on the edge of the bunk keeping an eye out for any patrols. I sat leaning against my duffel bag, feeling the jagged line of the spare pair of military boots jab against my spine.
“Do you think it’ll be worse than here?” someone wondered in the dark.
“I’m just glad to be done with the gas chambers. That was the only thing I was scared for.”
“It won’t be worse, just different. You just gotta shove your ego up your ass and suck everyone’s cock until you get to private first class.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“Not horrible, just different. Just wait till you’re a corporal. Then you’ll be on the receiving end of it.”
People snickered. I laughed along, but inside, I was trying to figure out what I actually felt. Did I feel glad about moving on to the real deal? No. Scared, then? No, I discovered, surprising myself. I just felt ready. Shove my ego up my ass? That’s easy, I thought. I barely had any left.
Once I got to my new unit, perhaps that resolve helped me persevere through tasks that may have otherwise seemed demeaning. Taking out the trash, waking everyone up in the morning, scrubbing the toilets — these all constituted the daily routine that I accepted with no real grudge. I committed to these norms with the mindset of an actor playing a role on stage. I’m a character in a play, I would tell myself as I collected crumbs from the floor while a small group of sergeants and corporals munched on their snacks and watched TV. I’m just performing my part.
The unit, thankfully, offered new liberties. I could use the phone booth whenever I wanted to, without having to first gather “15 merit points.” Then there was the ever-beloved post exchange, a tax-exempt convenience store. The first thing I bought was chocolate milk, which I had been craving for weeks. Sipping the sweet drink, I headed to the red phone booth and dialed home. My right hand savored the weight of the milk carton as my left hand clutched the receiver. Part of me even wished that nobody would pick up so that I could bask in the fluttering joy of each beep on the line, enjoying the wait, enjoying the drink. Of course, the daily flux of chores made consistent enjoyment impossible.
One such chore was working at the garbage dump. Because our unit had recently moved its base, the dump had not yet been partitioned. All the recyclables and nonrecyclables were piled together into one gigantic mountain of filth. They needed sorting, and predictably, each unit sent its privates to do the glorious job. Not that this counted as “structurally endorsed hazing,” something strictly forbidden by military law. Rather, participants would receive five merit points, 80 of which could earn them a two-day vacation. The merit system allowed the enlisted soldiers to fill out a slip of paper called a “point card,” have it signed by an appropriate supervisor and submit it to their respective platoon commanders. Vacation was, of course, highly coveted. We often entertained hypothetical auctions for one day of break, and the bidding price ran as high as $100. It was with this in mind that I slipped the point card in my chest pocket, pulled on a pair of black leather gloves and set out to the dump.
It was early December. We had recently seen our first snow, which had turned much of the garbage into a moldy, mucky blob. The snow-coated waste loomed ahead, at least twice my height.
The supervisor was a master sergeant with a square face and a gritty voice. He stood a few yards away from the garbage pile, arms akimbo. Pointing at the modest assortment of tools lined up against the wall, he bellowed, “Let’s get finished with this already! Move!”
My teeth were chattering from the cold, but I felt no inner resistance as I picked up a shovel and charged at the monstrous pile. I was only thinking about the job. Khlush. The shovel made an anticlimactic, almost comical noise as its plastic blade sank into the snow. A putrid stench attacked my nostrils. A few others joined me while a dozen more used brooms and rakes to sort out the unrecyclable trash and collect it in plastic bags. Still another group scavenged around for bottles, cans and metals, which they then disposed of in separate boxes. All the while, the master sergeant stood still, his head oscillating left and right like a surveillance camera, occasionally calling out slackers and making them do pushups.
It took us an hour to sort just one tower of garbage. The sun had begun to tilt westward. Whatever warmth it radiated dissipated in the wind, which I could almost visualize as arrows slicing past us. Every time I bent over to pick up something, my ears suffered from a cruel friction against the air. I kept reminding myself: This is a stage. Perform the act. I glanced at another private who was picking out empty cans barehanded. At least I’m wearing gloves.
I spluttered when the wind blew a vinyl wrapper smudged with a greenish-yellow sauce into my face.
“Anything the matter?” barked the master sergeant. Only a trainee would be naive enough to answer “Yes.”
“No, sir!” I yelled, tearing the vinyl off. Out of instinct, I raised my hands to wipe the sticky sauce off my face, but I caught myself just before the gloves touched my cheek.
We had arrived at the dump at noon. We were still working at 4 p.m. Both my gloves had ripped apart in the process of trying to extricate a bunch of clothes hangers from a discarded chair. The sleets of ice, which now had a fecal hue after being trampled by our boots, seeped through the gloves. I could feel neither my ears nor my hands. I lifted objects by holding them between my wrists. A couple of times, the master sergeant made us empty out a 5-liter trash bag after he spotted a bottle or can in it. Even then, I felt no resentment about the situation. I still had one thing keeping me going: I would get the five merit points. At least I would be rewarded — what more could I hope for in the military?
By the time the grounds were clean, the sun had sunk out of view, leaving us shivering in the indigo chill of early winter evening. After one last inspection, the master sergeant gave the OK. He grumbled at us to bring the point cards. The garbage sorters lined up before him with obvious eagerness, each holding a white slip of paper gingerly by its corner to avoid getting it dirty. I joined the queue, already prepared to put the past five hours behind me.
When I reached the front of the line, the master sergeant wordlessly opened up his hand. I reached inside my chest pocket to fish out my point card. Nothing was there.
“Where’s your card?” he grunted.
“One moment, sir, it was — I had it right here,” I stupidly fumbled in my other pockets as well, not caring that I was smudging slushy black goo all over my uniform. The card was nowhere to be found.
“If you don’t have the card, you don’t get the points. Next!”
“Sir, I really did bring it — it must have fallen out during the task, sir!”
He answered with a shrug. With his chin, he indicated that I should leave. I stepped aside, knowing there was no use arguing. There never was.
I trudged back to the barracks, not knowing what to think or even what to feel. I grimaced against the wind, partly to make sure that my facial muscles still took orders from my brain. Something liquid and hot moved deep inside me, but I couldn’t quite locate its presence.
I knew I had night shift that day, which meant I would have to go up to the office in approximately 10 minutes. This left me no time for dinner, let alone a shower. I tried to register this as a neutral fact. Another psychological exercise was to narrate my situation in the third person: Inkyu does not have time to eat or shower tonight. Inkyu will have to work past midnight. Inkyu should at least get some snacks.
I dashed to the post exchange, bought a chocolate milk and then continued to a phone booth; I wanted to be in a private space, and it was either this or a bathroom stall. Did I even want to call someone? I picked up the receiver and pressed it against my left ear, unable to think of a single person I could talk to. The weird liquid feeling had begun to churn and roil.
I opened the carton of chocolate milk and raised it to my lips. For a second, I was afraid I would taste something alien. But it was chocolate milk all right. Sweet and creamy.
Some things stayed constant. Even though I was transformed from a first-year student at a prestigious university to a piece of machinery, the chocolate milk remained the same. And that made me so relieved, so fulfilled, so exultant that, even before I registered happiness, I noticed the deranged desperation with which Private Inkyu rushed to feel it, the liquid within me erupting upward like geysers.
I stood there holding the phone, listening to its monotonous beep, teardrops running down my cheeks. I had never known self-consciousness to be so destructive.