Wherever Xue Xiao goes, people call him the 'Coke boy'. They recognise him from television as the teenager whom emergency workers pulled from the rubble of his collapsed school, almost 80 hours after the earthquake had hit. Even before he was completely free, the rescuers asked him: 'What do you need? What can we get you?' And with news cameras crowded around him, beaming the scene out live, Mr Xue replied: 'A Coke. A cold one please.' The answer caught the nation off guard, puncturing the tension that had been building over the days as the life-or-death drama of the rescue played out. In an instant, Mr Xue was an icon. He would later be chosen as one of the Sichuan torch-bearers during the Olympic torch relay, and has become to many people a symbol of forbearance. 'Of course, I'd prefer people to use my name, but it is OK if they call me 'the Coke Boy', for that may be something that connects more closely with my image,' the 18-year-old said. Ironically, he was no big fan of Coke before the quake. It all began while he was trapped under the rubble of Dongqi high school in Hanwang . 'An uncle [rescuer] asked me what I wanted to do after getting out of the hole, I said a Coke should be great. So when they pulled me out, I mentioned the Coke thing as a way to say 'thank you.'' His mother, Tan Zhongyan, said his hospital room overflowed with Coke from well-wishers. 'I had to tell them that Xue Xiao loves to drink many other kinds of cola and even water, so there was no need to bring any more Coke when they came to visit,' Ms Tan said. Mr Xue's relationship with the soft-drink maker also changed his life in another unexpected way. His right arm was severely injured and doctors couldn't save it. Coca-Cola helped to pay for the surgery and the sophisticated prosthetic that replaced it. After recuperating, Mr Xue travelled to Florida for a special rehabilitation programme in February. While there, he got to know staff at the Florida Institute of Technology, who were so impressed they promised him a scholarship if he could meet the language requirements. So Mr Xue enrolled at the Chengdu Experimental Foreign Languages School West Campus, to improve his English. The school waived the annual 30,000 yuan (HK$34,099) tuition fee and arranged for personal tutoring to give Mr Xue a jump start. 'I was a little rusty [in English at the beginning], but I'm catching up pretty fast, I think.' He attends regular classes in mornings and afternoons, and takes special ones in the evening. He tries to fit some English reading into the half hour he has free before the compulsory lights-out at 10.30pm. Understandably, officials try to shield Mr Xue, seeing the public interest as a distraction from his studies. It requires approval from several layers of Chengdu's educational authority before the principal will agree to an interview. But through it all, Mr Xue comes across as deeply grateful for the help the attention has brought. 'Without the media's help, many problems would not have been solved so fast.' Some questions stir up memories he would rather forget, like what he was feeling lying buried in the dark. 'It is the kind of question I know every journalist will ask. Perhaps it is these kinds of questions that have news value,' Mr Xue said. It is still painful to recall the classmates who died. But he said he has learned to live through those nightmares. 'I can still feel those terrible feelings now and then, but I know I should move on from the past and work my tail off for a better future.' His parents, though, say they are just happy to see their son healthy and driven. As for his future, they have no career plan for Mr Xue. 'It doesn't matter what he does in the future, as long as he can support his life in a decent way,' Ms Tan said. 'At the same time, he has to remember all the help and love he received from society, and use every way possible to help others.'