My American Dream: 5. In Which I Buy Beer as a Minor
It may be hard for you to understand how I bought alcohol as a 7 year old in Korea. As a child, my parents often sent me to do small errands like getting a bag of salt or a carton of eggs. It was pretty well understood that whenever I came to the stores, I was running an errand on behalf of my parents. Often, Father sent me to get a bottle of soju, an infamous Korean liquor, from a store just down the street.
When we moved to the US, one of the things that my parents found frustrating was that they couldn’t send us out to buy things. Often the stores were too far, or we lived in a not-so-safe neighborhood.
When we were living in Rockville, Maryland (I even remember our old street name: Rollins ave), we lived in a relatively safe neighborhood where there was even a 7-11 convenience store nearby.
One day after fighting with Mother, Father handed me a few dollars and told me to go buy beer from the 7-11. It must have been on a weekend because everybody was home.
I protested, knowing well that it was against the law for me to buy beer. Not only that, I knew that Father might get in trouble if the police were to find out he had sent a minor to buy beer for him. (Thinking about it, it’s the exact opposite of old, homeless people buying alcohol for minors at a fee).
I protested to no effect. He shut me up and kicked me out the door, figuratively.
I walked with much trepidation. All kinds of thoughts came through my juvenile mind. ‘I should probably try to steal it because there is no way the clerk is going to let a 15 year old buy beer. What if I get caught? Do I go to jail? Would I become friends with criminals and live a life of drugs and crime? Maybe I can explain my situation to the clerk. But I am scared to talk in english, remember?’
When I got to the store I couldn’t directly enter the store. I walked over to the phone where I had jimmied out 3 dollars worth of quarters from the return slot a few weeks ago; it was empty that time. Then I kicked my feet on the curb a few times and gathered up enough courage to enter through the green and orange sliding doors.
Considering the unofficial nature of my visit, I avoided eye contact with the clerk, whom I imagined to be just to be as paranoid as I was. Despite that, I felt his cold stare.
From the back isle in front of the beer section, I stood with dismay. On one hand, my Korean father expected me to fulfill my duty as an obedient son. On the other hand, the greater American society would not allow a minor to purchase beer for the fear of misuse and/or abuse. Strung between these two inconsolable expectations, I opened and closed the cooler door multiple times. I am sure this exasperated the clerk to a degree.
The whole situation resembled a Greek mythology where I was a pitifully equipped hero, the store clerk a vigilant two-headed minotaur protecting the mountain of beer, which bore the fruit whose elixir would restore the health of an ailing father. Like many good stories, the hero fails in accomplishing the original goal but comes away with an alternate solution which is just as good, if not better.
In the end, I realized I could not steal the beer and that I had lost this battle when I had set my foot outside the crappy apartment my family lived in. I reasoned that punishment Father would give me would be not as severe as the punishment from society for trying to purchase alcohol at my age. I started walking empty-handed toward the front of the store.
It really was a desperate genius that brought to my attention cans of root beer with pictures of a frothy mug. Though designed to appeal to the childish senses wont of imitating adults – akin to little 5-year-old girls putting on makeup – I thought it might just pass as beer to my father who was in the very beginning of infancy in English. After all, it had four large letters B-E-E-R printed on it. If all else came to fail and Father actually knew what root beer was, I could plea innocence and at least buy myself some time before he would punish me for “disobeying” in my failure to buy beer for him.
I bought a whole six pack of the tasty soft drink that I occasionally enjoyed with ice cream. I smiled to the store clerk – the expression which, in retrospect, must have greatly confused the young man. As I walked back home triumphantly, life and hope again returned to my chest.
Back at home, I quickly handed Father the pack of root beer and walked toward my room. There was not enough time; I heard the familiar sound of a can opening under carbonated pressure. After an inaudible gulp, he called after me in Korean, “what is this?”
I turned around and replied innocently, “beer.”
“Look right here,” I pointed on the can, “B-e-e-r. It says beer.”
“It really tastes horrible. It doesn’t taste anything like beer. It’s sweet. It’s not beer,” he complained.
“Sorry,” I apologized in Korean. With feigned ernest, which I have planned on the way home; and which I executed with a hint of genuine concern.
“Do you want me to go return it and get a new one?” I offered. By this time, I was home free; I made an honest mistake and offered to rectify the situation.
“No, it’s ok,” relented Father.
“I’m going to go get it myself,” he said it as if he knew all along that he shouldn’t have sent a child to do a man’s job.
He soon left home to get the real deal. Mother was nowhere to be found.
Relieved, I dropped a deuce in the bathroom and afterwards drank 3 of the 5 remaining cans of root beer out of spite. I gave the rest two cans to my little brothers; the more accomplices I have, the less the potential for a severe punishment.
Father soon forgot about the whole incident, but I continued to live my miserable immigrant life in other anxiety provoking ways.
The disconnect between my authoritative parents and “liberal” American culture still plagues me despite the fact that I am a grown man of 29 years and a doctor.