In the spring of 1996, Chinese missiles hit areas just off the southwest and northeast coasts of Taiwan. The missiles were unarmed, but the message was clear: Taiwan, which was preparing to hold its first democratic presidential elections ever, was treading a dangerous path, one Beijing wanted to prevent with threats of military attack. U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier groups to the area in case hostilities broke out. The world's attention was focused on the Taiwan Strait, and a plethora of "China experts" appeared in the media with their judgments and predictions. Yet just how much do most Westerners know about Taiwan, much less the state of its military?
At the time of the Chinese missile strikes, unknown to the Western media or even the Taiwanese press, an American man was in the process of enduring one of the biggest challenges Taiwanese males face: Basic training at the toughest boot camp on the island. TC, who was raised and educated in the United States and later immigrated to Taiwan, went on to complete his mandatory two years' service in the army there. His experiences during those two years are chronicled in Counting Mantou.
The story, divided into 28 chapters, includes the author's observations of the Taiwanese army from the point of view of the common conscript, a perspective missing from the big-picture musings of most sinologists, who may have studied the history and political situation in books but who haven't spent a significant amount of time "in the trenches," as the author literally has. The result is a unique look at an aspect of life in Taiwan few, if any, other Westerners have experienced, as well as a telling account from behind the scenes in the Taiwanese military, one of the only things keeping China from attacking the island it considers a "renegade province."
While there is no shortage of travel books, pure military-themed books or autobiographies on the market today, few combine these genres as does Counting Mantou. While some authors tour exotic countries and give their impressions, this book offers an in-depth view of life in the Taiwanese army, which is an integral part of life in Taiwan. Not only does this include military issues, but cultural issues as well. The observations within are relevant to the current political environment in East Asia, particularly the tense relationship between the People's Republic of China and The Republic of China on Taiwan.
Many sinologists have written lengthy treatises concerning their guesses on Taiwan's army, but this book shows that army up close and in vivid detail from the standpoint of an ordinary conscript. This is the only account of a Westerner serving in the Taiwanese army.
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