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An Inquisitive Move

2007-01-25

If we could be granted a year in our past to re-live our life, the year chosen by me would be the year of 1970, when I just freshly graduated from college, and started serving one-year compulsory military service in Taiwanese Army.

My memory's eye still vividly saw myself carrying a simple luggage, walking on the barracks-compound lawn toward the office of the chief of our liaison platoon. Around that time, there were some American troops stationing in Taiwan, engaged in Vietnam war. The war was near the end, so the number of American GIs was dwindling. As a liaison 2nd lieutenant, I was supposed to act as an interpreter for the American troops.

On the way to report to my future platoon leader, I was greeted by a weathered-faced corporal. I was still in my civilian clothes, so he did not need to salute to me. Actually, his stares measured me with a slight hint of hostility from head to toes.

Such hostility was understood, because he had served in the army since his youth, yet he remained as a corporal. By contrast, I had had only one-month military training, and here I came as a 2nd lieutenant, only because I was a college graduate. Such a ranking system in Taiwan at that time was really unfair. (See, it is man who makes the law. Many high-ranking officials' children were able to enter colleges. So they erected laws that favored their own children.)

After a brief conversation, which informed him that I was going to join the liaison platoon for one year, and was on my way to see the platoon chief for the first time, he warned me,

"Our chief is tough, not easy to deal with. Be careful ah."

As a Chinese, Chief Wang was very tall, taller than 6' 5". He did not smile much, looking at me with his eyes half-closed. My first impression of Chief Wang was indeed that he was intimidating.

Somehow, after a few days, the information that I was a Go player became known to him. He summoned me to his office, and inquired about my Go strength. I told him that I was a member of Taiwan University Go team, roughly about Taiwanese 3 kyu. His eyes beamed with surprise and joy. It turned out that he was a vivid Go player, too. But he was weaker than 10 kyu.

From that time on, after dinner on certain days, he would ring me and tell me to go to play Go with him. I vaguely remember that the games were with 6 handicapped stones, and I won most of the time. Fortunately, he had to leave the barracks on out-of-town missions frequently, sparing me from playing those not too exciting games.

The corporal voiced his discontent about Chief Wang occasionally to his men, who were lower-ranked corporals, and less educated. These men included one chef and two others who took care of miscellaneous chores. As mentioned above, since the number of American troops was dwindling, there were really very few interpretation tasks to do. Once in a blue moon, an American helicopter would land on the basketball court, and a couple of American GIs or officers would dismount from the copter chamber, chatted with our chief and vice chief for a little while, and then took off again. That was about it.

So, during daytime, these corporals had nothing to do at all. They hence had much time to gossip around. In front of Chief Wang, however, these guys were able to wear completely different facial expressions: smiling, respectful, and obedient.

Neither did I have much to do during office hours. Most of my time was spent in preparing exams for going abroad, such as TOEFL and GRE, occasionally studying professional Go games, and in thinking how to chase after girls, but not in "chasing after girls" itself.

Our barracks compound was located in the countryside. So there were no fashionable urban girls available for me to chase after. Once a girl, who lived in a nearby village, came to ask me to tutor her math and English. All I can remember is that, when she sat next to me, her body and her hair emanated a certain scent, not fragrant, nor smelly, just unique. Later, I discovered that the scent originated from the water in the well in her house backyard, and there was no tap water in her house.

If Chief Wang was absent, during dinners, sometimes we could simply scoop the portion of our own meals into our plates, and eat in our own offices. But if he was around, then the entire platoon, of about a dozen men, would sit at a ping pong table, and eat together. The conversation usually was, of course, carried out and dominated by the chief. Everybody else would either bury his head in the rice bowls quietly, or sycophantically respond to his topics.

And guess who was the second most talkative? It was me. Chief Wang seemed to be only interested in talking to me, and asking me sorts of questions. He even asked me to sit next to him. In addition to Go, I happened to be also a decent ping pong player, and Wang also liked to play ping pong, which might explain why our dining room was converted into a ping pong room.

Not only did Wang look slightly mean, but also he rarely complimented his subordinates. One time I was playing ping pong. Wang came by and watched. After the game, he commented, ?Ummm, that was the way all of us should play ping pong?, making my tail wagging profusely.

After a few months, Wang indicated to me that he wanted to introduce his niece to me. Wang grew up in an effluent family. He himself was not married, we did not know why, nor were we able to find out the reasons. His brother was a CEO of a big bank, living in a mansion-like house in Taipei. On a Sunday, I wore a suit, managed to find Wang's brother's house, and sat with Wang in the living room. I was quite nervous, because I admired effluent people.

He and I had to find topics to talk and kill time. Soon the servant served us lunch, and two of us ate at a huge table. I did not have the courage to ask why his niece, or her parents, had not shown up to meet me. After lunch, Wang indicated that I should leave. So having worn a suit, having forfeited my precious Sunday holiday, and having taken the trouble to travel all the way from the countryside to Taipei, I had an uptight free lunch, but did not achieve anything else otherwise. I did not even get to see his niece just for one glimpse.

Ha, this event reminds me of moves of a certain type in Go games, called inquisitive moves. A player places a stone on the board, away from the area of ongoing engagements. Strategically, it is to ask for a response from the opponent. Depending on the response, the player then will choose how to play next.

Wang played an inquisitive move. He had a good intention to introduce his niece to me, but did not want to make the meeting a formal one. Possibly, depending on how his brother's family would react, he then would play his next move. His next move was never to mention this aborted match-making meeting again.

Niece or no niece, he made the year of 1970 quite pleasant and memorable for me. For that, I have been always grateful to him.

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