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First Encounter with Coca-cola
by Therese Park

Coca-cola was introduced to our family in July, 1951, during the Korean War. It was a gift from two American soldiers, total strangers we met at the beach. In spite of their kindness, we didn't fall in love with the American drink. In fact, I still don't touch it, although I am an American citizen now.

Earlier that July, truce-talks between the UN Delegates and Chinese Communists-leaders began, and some anxious refugees were leaving our town of Pusan, eager to find out the fate of their homes or their lost families. But for those of us who lived in Pusan, it was time to enjoy life again.

One Sunday afternoon we were among the Korean families enjoying the cool ocean breeze on a sandy beach, glad that it was opened to the public again. While intense fighting had been going on since a year earlier, beaches were closed for security reasons.

But the signs of war were everywhere. Near us, behind a chain-link fence, army tents were flapping in the wind and dozens of American soldiers were enjoying a day at the beach too--some swimming, some playing volleyball, and some sunbathing. Overhead, American planes were flying north, their wings glittering in the bright sunlight. Faraway, near the horizon, the American battleships floated, their red-white-blue flags dancing in the air.

While we ate lunch, we had unexpected visitors. Two American soldiers, each with a six-pack of Coca-cola bottles, came and greeted our father in English.

Father was baffled. "Are they trying to sell the drink?" he asked my eldest brother, a high school student, who was learning English at school.

"No," my brother answered. "They're giving it to us for free," he said.

Father smiled. Taking the six packs from the soldiers, he said "Tank-yu!" the only English-words he knew.

The Americans babbled something more, and my brother interpreted that they wanted us to enjoy the drink. They left, waving and smiling.

My brother opened a bottle. Brown bubbles crawled up.

Father looked worried. "Is it safe to drink?"

"Of course it is," my brother said. "Americans drink it all the time."

Father leaned forward to smell the brown bubbles but straightened his back immediately. "Something pricks my nose. I don't think we should drink it."

My brother laughed. "It's from America, Father. Why don't you try it? I promise it won't kill you."

Father shook his head. "I don't want to."

"Mother, do you want to?" my brother asked.

She wasn't eager to try it, either. "Why don't you go first?" she said.

My brother lifted the bottle to his mouth with a certain air of pride and began drinking it. I watched him with envy. I had seen Coca-cola posters on the streets. The people in the poster were always smiling, ear-to-ear, the bottle in their hands, making me curious about the drink. In our family, we never drank anything but Barley Tea, hot or cold. Buying cold drinks from street vendors was prohibited. According to Mother, vendors never boiled water before they sweetened and colored it.

Something went wrong between my brother and coca-cola. My brother began to spit up the brown, bubbly liquid, hiccupping, while the liquid dribbled from his mouth and nose. What's happening, I wondered.

Mother panicked. "Are you all right? You look sick," she said. But my brother seemed too miserable to say anything. He only hiccupped, blinking his watery eyes.

Father poured Barley Tea into a teacup, and handed it to him. "Drink it," he ordered. "Didn't I say we shouldn't drink that stuff?"

Wiping his mouth and grinning awkwardly, my brother said, "It's pretty good, really! It pricked my throat like hell, but I'll drink it again."


June 6 , 2006