A bittersweet coming-of-age debut novel set in the Korean community in Toronto in the 1980s.
This haunting coming-of-age story, told through the eyes of a rebellious young girl, vividly captures the struggles of families caught between two cultures in the 1980s. Family secrets, a lost sister, forbidden loves, domestic assaults—Mary discovers as she grows up that life is much more complicated than she had ever imagined. Her secret passion for her English teacher is filled with problems and with the arrival of a promising Korean suitor, Joon-Ho, events escalate in ways that she could never have imagined, catching the entire family in a web of deceit and violence.
A unique and imaginative debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety evocatively portrays the life of a young Korean Canadian girl who will not give up on her dreams or her family.
Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety Chapter 1 I was behind the counter of our convenience store, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, reading the Toronto Star when I heard tires screech and someone screaming obscenities. A horn blasted. I looked out the window.
“Are you freaking crazy?” the driver was yelling. Tico merely kept honking the bicycle horn he wore around his neck as he finished crossing the street.
“Hey, Mare,” he said. “Got anything for me?”
He nodded. He wasn’t much of a talker, which was a good thing; he smelled awful. I handed him the loaf of day-old Wonder Bread my mother kept aside for him. He came in for it every Tuesday at 8 p.m. My mother had a soft spot for him because his eyes reminded her of Gregory Peck’s. She was convinced Tico’s current hardship was a result of bad deeds in a previous life and took pity on him. Tico smiled at me. His teeth were grossly decayed, some were missing. He nodded a quick thank-you and left. I heard his horn again as he crossed to the other side of the street.
I got back to the newspaper. Often a real-life story would trigger ideas I could later weave into a story or a poem. The Titanic had recently been discovered on the bottom of the North Atlantic. While my brother, Josh, was fascinated with the mathematical improbability of its collision with an iceberg, I was intrigued by the idea of hundreds of people trapped in a sinking ship. I imagined mass hysteria, floating bodies draped in wet evening clothes, white faces stargazing through frozen eyes. A dark-haired prostitute I hadn’t seen before walked in and interrupted my daydream. She looked around and strolled over to the gum rack. Her red fishnet tights had a tear just below the hemline of her red miniskirt. So much red, I thought, and wondered if she knew about the rip.
I didn’t recognize her until she handed me a ten-dollar bill to pay for a box of condoms and a pack of Wrigley’s Big Red chewing gum. In an instant I was transported back seven years to Mr. Mills’s fourth-grade class.
* * *
It had been an unusually warm October day when I transferred into a new elementary school in Toronto. After years of working in other people’s variety stores and at miscellaneous jobs since emigrating from Korea in 1975, my parents had saved enough money to buy their own store in the centre of the city. I stood shyly in the doorway of the new classroom as the principal informed Mr. Mills of my arrival. Then came the awkward introduction. “Class, this is . . .” I finished Mr. Mills’s sentence for him. His eyes scanned the room. So did mine—there were no Asian students in the class and no empty desks. Mr. Mills rolled his chair by the windows and offered it to me. My cheeks burned as I crossed the room, knowing every eye was summing up my faded hand-me-down purple hooded sweater and jeans, my self-inflicted, uneven bangs, my chopstick-thin body. I sat down, convinced I was unworthy of friendship. The lesson proceeded. A handout was distributed and we were instructed to take out a pencil. I had nothing to write with.
“Delia,” Mr. Mills said, “lend the new girl a pencil.” Remembering names was clearly not his forte.
A pale girl with Goldilocks-blonde hair fumbled through her pencil case and passed me a brand-new pencil that smelled oddly of cinnamon. I was about to thank her when a rough scar on the back of her hand caught my eye. It ran from above the wrist to below the middle finger, a startling blemish on such a delicate hand. When we returned after our recess, I was deeply disappointed that Mr. Mills had arranged a desk and chair for me and that I was now seated towards the back of the class, three desks directly behind Delia.
When I finally got the nerve to ask about the scar a few weeks later, it was too late. Delia had stopped coming to school. I asked Mr. Mills about her, but the only thing he volunteered was that she had moved away. No one seemed to know where. Or care. And I forgot about her.
* * *
Almost seven years later, the scar was still a jagged island surrounded by calm waters. I examined Delia’s face as she studied the Jamaican patties at the end of the counter. She looked older than sixteen, but she was biting long fake nails the same shade of red as her outfit. Her once-beautiful blonde hair was now solid black, like mine. I could almost smell the mousse and hairspray that kept it puffed up. I struggled to stay composed. She didn’t bother to check her change before dropping it into her purse. My heart pounding, I watched her leave the store, then dashed to the door to see where she was headed. She didn’t go far. She was still standing at our corner four hours later when I crept into my brother’s room to peek out his window.
I was thankful Josh was a deep sleeper. Had he been awake, I might casually have asked him if he’d noticed the new girl working the corner. Then I had the idea to check his log, kept hidden behind his bookcase. I’d found the spiral notebook last year when I was snooping. It recorded how long it took a prostitute to return to the corner after being picked up. Josh had turned his observations into a science. Because he spent so much time tending the cash register, he noted what brand of condoms each prostitute preferred and what cigarettes she smoked. He’d even assigned the girls names: Trixie, Babe, Suzie X.
I took the notebook to the bathroom, the only place I could get away with having a light on at that late hour. There she was: “Scarlet: white, 5'5", black hair, grey eyes, scar on hand, ears pierced five times left, three times right . . . fave gum, Wrigley’s Big Red.”
Where had she been for the past seven years? How had she ended up working this corner?
* * *
It rained all the next day and evening. I was so busy mopping up a trail of footprints left by customers that I almost missed Delia when she came into the store. A big, round security mirror hung from the back corner, and I was able to watch her talk to my brother at the cash. Her back was to the mirror, but I could see my brother’s face was lit up.
“Yeah, I don’t get out much,” Delia said, her voice warm and full. “But I loved that movie! I loved Ally Sheedy’s character.”
I felt my entire weight shift, with the mop becoming my crutch. I’d seen The Breakfast Club and knew exactly what they were talking about.
Prepared to make my way to the front, I dropped the mop into the pail. The wooden handle clanged as it hit the metal. Both Josh and Delia turned to look at me. I fled into the back storage room.
“You okay?” I heard my brother yell.
“Need the bathroom!” I replied, trying to catch my breath. I was surprised I’d found my voice that quickly. Through the crack of the storage-room door I watched Delia finish her conversation with my brother. She waved to him as she left.
* * *
The next morning at 6 a.m., I sat drained at the kitchen table, watching my mother as she made breakfast. Despite living in Canada all these years, she still insisted on preparing a typical Korean breakfast—steamed rice, soup, kimchi, and several vegetable and meat dishes. I was desperate to mention Delia, but didn’t know how to begin.
“You don’t have to make so much food,” I finally said in irritation.
“Something smells good,” said my dad, walking in.
My mother handed him a cup of green tea she had set aside to cool. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” she lectured, “not dinner. What do you need such a big meal for when you’re going to bed? It just makes you fat.” She stopped cutting vegetables and added in Korean, “There’s so much flawed thinking with some of these white people. Can you imagine what it would do for the health care system if everyone ate rice, kimchi, and soup three times a day? We’d be paying less taxes for one thing.”
“Listen to your omma,” my dad said. “She’s always right.” He winked, took a sip of tea, and left.
In that instant I knew my parents would never agree to help a white under-aged hooker. Instead, I envisioned my mother smacking the side of my head and telling me to go study. “Become a lawyer first,” she would yell at me in Korean. “Then think about saving the world!”
I left the kitchen and went into my room. I was at a loss, convinced my mother couldn’t offer me any advice. However, I was determined to initiate a conversation with Delia the next time she came to the store. Maybe I could ask her if there was anything I could do to help her get off the street.
* * *
I was behind the store counter, looking up the movies playing at the Eaton Centre. Unlike some white girls I knew who planned elaborate Sweet Sixteen parties, I was content treating my closest friends to lunch at Mr. Greenjeans and a movie afterwards. I’d even allowed myself to indulge in fantasies of asking Delia to join us, a joke really because it was nearly the end of the month and I still hadn’t found the courage to say a word to her. Rubina, my oldest friend, could finally meet her.
The door opened and Delia walked in. I was shocked to see the broken Valentine that was her face. A small cut near her eye ran in the direction of her natural expression lines and the surrounding area was patchy with bruising. A cut on the edge of her lips made one side of her unpainted mouth look inflated. Her neck had strange red marks on it. I was so stunned, I almost cried out her name.
As always, Delia avoided eye contact with me as she laid her usual purchases on the counter. She made a peace sign with her fingers, and I removed two cigarettes from an open box of Export “A” and placed them on the counter between the condoms and the Wrigley’s Big Red. She dropped her change in her purse and left without a word, the scent of cigarettes and cinnamon trailing her out the door.
Delia’s battered face haunted me that night. I saw her white body lying still, her grey eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling as raw hands, white and black, pawed and probed her naked flesh. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shake the image. When I realized I couldn’t sleep, I got up and wrote in my diary. I saw myself back in Mr. Mills’s classroom. I saw Delia’s pencil sitting in her pencil case, surrounded by sticks of Wrigley’s Big Red gum, waiting for my arrival, ready to connect our two lives. But now she was in a dangerous place. My parents would say it was an immoral world. How could I help her?
* * *
But our history would repeat itself. Delia disappeared.
I waited for her every night as weeks passed. I became so desperate for answers, I turned to my brother. We were in the store.
“Do you know what happened to the girl with the scar on her hand?” I asked. “I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“She’s gone.” He looked up from a Sports Illustrated magazine. “I don’t know where, but she said she needed a fresh scene after what happened to her. Can’t blame her.” He turned back to his magazine but my silence prompted him to look up again. “Sorry she didn’t say goodbye.”
“What do you mean?”
Josh closed the magazine. “She mentioned she recognized you from Mr. Mills’s class,” he said, avoiding my eyes.
My thoughts went blank for a moment. “But she never said anything,” I said finally.
“She was really embarrassed. Try to understand—”
“But she told you—” I felt myself getting hot. Why had she turned to him instead of me?
“She was pretty messed up. She probably didn’t want to burden you with her problems.” He rolled the magazine and tapped it against the counter. “She was a really nice girl. She told me she wanted to be a party planner. Throw confetti in the air and make people happy. I really felt bad for her—she didn’t have a whole lot.” His eyes finally met mine. There was a sadness there that washed over my anger. I wondered if perhaps he too had hoped to help her—that we’d both spent all this time wrapped in the same concerns.
* * *
Our convenience store sat on Queen Street in downtown Toronto. It was west of Bathurst Street at a corner popular with prostitutes, the homeless, and the occasional patient from the nearby mental health hospital. The CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, was less than a ten-minute drive south, but much to the disappointment of any out-of-town guests, we had no view of it. Not that we had time for sightseeing. At seven every morning, Christmas being the only exception, we opened for business. Of all the staple items we sold—milk, bread, and newspapers—cigarettes and condoms were our best sellers.
My parents owned the two-storey building and we lived in a small apartment above our store. The entrance to our home was on the side of the building, facing a narrow one-way street off Queen. The windows shook each time the streetcars rumbled by, and we got used to the scream of sirens, even learning to distinguish the differences among fire, police, and EMS. But the apartment was comfortable though small for the four of us. Josh, who was a year younger than me, had the bigger corner bedroom with windows facing in two directions. His friends used to sleep over all the time until my mother discovered why. The boys would turn off the light and peek out at the prostitutes on the street corner.
By the mid-eighties, most of the variety stores in Toronto were owned by Korean immigrant families. At least, that’s what the KBA—the Korean Businessmen’s Association—reported in the Korea Times newspaper. Established in 1973, the organization had become big enough to have paid employees and offer membership services and benefits.
I disliked working in the store and hated working the cash. I preferred to line up rows and rows of canned tuna and boxes of instant soup. On hot summer days, I welcomed the job of refilling the coolers with cans and bottles of soft drinks. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded because I had to reach behind the cold drinks to place the new ones that needed time to chill. My favourite job was restocking the magazines. I was fascinated by the porn, although I didn’t have the opportunity to examine it in any great detail, as my parents were vigilant. Because we were robbed frequently, I was never left alone for long. Nothing that would ever make the six o’clock news, although we once had a patient from the mental health hospital come tearing in with a butter knife held dramatically in the air. “I need a goat to sacrifice!” he screamed at my mother. “Sell me a goddamn goat!” When my startled mother stared wide-eyed at him, he turned to me. “You—you!” he stammered. He waved his free hand, a finger pointed at me like a street sign rattling in the wind. “What’s your name?” When I mumbled Mary, he yelled, “Ming, tell her—tell her in Chinese or whatever you people speak!” We captured the entire incident on security videotape, minus the sound, but the police took it away before we could show anyone.
Another time, two skinny white guys came in claiming they had a gun. They were both freakishly tall but their baby faces made them seem less intimidating. They obviously had no idea we made three cents for every newspaper we sold and that we had to sell milk at cost just to bring customers into the store in the first place. “You should be robbing a bank,” my dad told them, his advice sincere but difficult to understand because of his thick accent. The two of them took off with less than fifty dollars in cash, a bag full of cigarettes, and the latest edition of Penthouse, which I’d placed on the shelf minutes earlier.
Because most stores closed between 10 and 11 p.m., my parents, whenever they had company, had visitors drop by very late. At least once every few months, I’d be awakened by my dad and his friends in the living room singing, drunk out of their minds on soju. Although I’d never tried it, I was told it tasted like vodka. The women drank boricha, a barley tea, and talked quietly in the kitchen. Josh and I stayed in our rooms. Although it was a nuisance to be kept awake so late, we were secretly happy to hear our parents laugh and be part of a circle in which they spoke their language and felt a sense of belonging. I sometimes felt sad my parents and their friends had to meet like fireflies in the night, sacrificing sleep for laughter, food, and gossip.
The men liked to sing and each of them had a favourite song. Mr. Young, who owned a tiny store north of us on Dundas Street, always sang “Arirang,” a traditional folk song considered Korea’s unofficial anthem. Even I was moved by his rich and powerful voice each time he sang.
My dad’s favourite song was about a famous general. Dad’s family had kept official record books that showed he was a direct ancestor. Born in 1316, the general became a national hero when he led his men to victory during a number of battles against Japanese pirates who began raiding the Korean coast in the 1350s. He went on to win increasingly more important battles against the Mongols, reclaiming northern territories lost to them during the Yuan dynasty, as well as the Jeju Islands to the south. This gained him tremendous favour and influence with the king. However, as the song goes, his great popularity also made him great enemies, who in turn conspired against him, and on one cold November day in 1388, the general was branded a traitor and beheaded.
My dad, who never sang unless he was drunk, always sounded sad whenever he belted out the song about the general and the glory days when a man could be a real hero. When one of his friends teased him and wanted to know why he couldn’t be a hero himself, he laughed and said, “In this country, I’d have to learn English first!”
It was true that my dad, despite living in Canada for ten years, hadn’t really learned to speak or write English. It never seemed to bother him, unlike my mother, who kept piles of instructional English-language cassette tapes—ranging from beginner to advanced levels—by the cash register, and played them in between customers.
“Why don’t you make him learn like you do?” I once asked my mother. “Aren’t you at all embarrassed by him?”
“Your father’s accepted his fate here,” she said.
Although for once I don’t think she intended to make me feel bad, I felt guilty that my dad saw himself as limited in the same country that my mother was sure would lead me to a great and brilliant life. Unlike my dad, I was never going to accept my fate.
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Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y.K. Choi
Questions for Discussion
1. Examine possible reasons why Mary’s family left South Korea. Why might they have chosen to immigrate to Canada?
2. Mary’s younger brother Josh is more accepting of their Korean heritage. Describe how that affects his relationship with his sister.
3. Mrs. O’Doherty, an elderly customer, tells Mary she came to Canada in 1916 from Ireland. Mary and her family came in 1975 from South Korea. Consider their different immigrant experiences in Toronto.
4. The family has a unique place in the community. What role does the variety store serve in the lives of its customers?
5. Mary’s family members protect themselves from pain by ignoring or repressing their feelings. Consider some of the consequences of this for each character.
6. Consider how Mary’s relationship with Will Allen changes throughout the novel. What role do race, ethnicity, and age play? How does Mary try to change him, and what does she learn about herself as a result?
7. Mary discovers some surprising truths about Aunt Mira, her mother’s lost sister. How do Mira’s choices in life help Mary understand love?
8. Mary plays many roles with the different people in her life. Do you observe any changes in her behaviour and attitude depending on whom she is interacting with? Do different people bring out different behaviour?
9. Discuss Mary’s motives for writing and how they evolve during the course of the novel.
10. Mary is delighted to make a Korean friend. On the surface, she and Kate have much in common. How are they different?
11. Joon-Ho, who is very proud to be Korean, wants a “Canadian” name and asks Mary to help him select one. What are some reasons why he might want a new name? How is this different from Mary’s experience?
12. Mary finds herself envying her friend Linda who, as a Catholic, could be forgiven for her sins by praying. Discuss the role of faith and religion, and what it means to the characters.
13. Mary’s feelings towards her mother change by the novel’s end. How does the information about the piano force Mary to reconsider her feelings towards her mother?
14. Compare and contrast the four sisters: Mary’s mother, her aunts – jag-eun emoh and kun emoh – and Aunt Mira in New York. How have their choices had an impact on their lives? How does each lifestyle speak to the role of women in their respective societies?
15. Mary realizes that she graduated from high school without ever having studied Asian history, literature, or culture. How did this affect her sense of identity within Canadian society?
16. Tico, the homeless man, gives Mary a gift at the end of the book. What do the bread tags symbolize?
17. Consider the symbolic role of animals and plants (swans, cranes, dogs, lotus, geraniums, evergreens, begonias, ferns, cacti) to convey meaning and explore key themes.
18. Mary’s father teaches her several “lessons” throughout the novel. Identify them and discuss how they help Mary shape her understanding of the world around her.
19. The author believes there are no villains in this novel. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
20. The title of the book, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, comes from the name of the family’s convenience store, the principal setting of the story. Consider the ironic meaning of the novel’s title.
Enhance Your Book Club / Extension Activities
1. The story takes place during the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s. Research how this time period reflects emerging movements in society such as feminism, inter-racial romance, and gentrification.
2. Both Mary and Mrs. O’Doherty kept a diary. Consider writing an entry from either one of their points of view about another character in the novel.
3. Research the Korean War. Why is it called the Forgotten War? What role did Canadians play? Visit the Korean War Museum in Brampton Ontario. Visit www.veterans.gc.ca for more online resources.
4. Visit a Korean restaurant. Some popular dishes you might consider trying are bulgogi (grilled marinated beef), galbi (short ribs), tangsuyuk (sweet and sour chicken, beef, or tofu), chajangmyun (black bean spaghetti), and bokumbop (friend rice). Post a review online.
5. Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is Mary and her friends’ favourite song. The 1980s was a decade made memorable by its fashion, music, and pop culture. Make a top ten list of ’80s songs, television shows, movies, and other things that made the ’80s so wonderful.
Originally from South Korea, Ann Y.K. Choi immigrated to Canada in 1975. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the Creative Writing Certificate Program at the University of Toronto. Most recently, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at National University in San Diego, California. Her debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award. The story, set in the 1980s, was inspired by her experiences working in her family-run variety store. A teacher with the York Region District School Board, Ann lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.
“Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety flings open a window onto an entire world largely unknown to non-Koreans. . . . An explosive and heartfelt debut.”
– Toronto Star
“Ann Y.K. Choi deftly negotiates the tightrope between a teenager’s dreams in the new world and the expectations of her immigrant parents. . . . Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety invites the reader into the intimate life of Mary—or Yu-Rhee, her given Korean name—and explores the perennial questions of the meaning of identity and home.”
– Denise Chong, author of The Concubine’s Children
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