Monday May 02, 2016

Ann Y. K. Choi on growing up behind the counter of her family's convenience store

Ann Y.K. Choi's debut novel is based on her experience working at her family's convenience store in Toronto.

Ann Y.K. Choi's debut novel is based on her experience working at her family's convenience store in Toronto.

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While she was growing up in Toronto, Ann Y.K. Choi worked in the convenience story owned by her family. The immigrant family in her debut novel, Kay's Lucky Coin Variety, make their living the same way, and Mary, the fictional family's daughter, works there a lot and is irritated by its demands and the expectations of her hardworking parents. As Mary grows into young adulthood, she struggles to find balance between her dreams and her parents' dreams for her.

Ann Y.K. Choi spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in Toronto.

ON CHANGING HER NAME WHEN SHE MOVED TO CANADA

​When we came to Canada in 1975 and my brother and I tried to register for school for the first time, we were informed that the school policy was that we needed to take Anglo-Saxon names. We were told it was for our own good, and that it would help us adapt and become part of the community faster. Looking back now, I think it's been easier for me to have a name that people can pronounce and remember. So to some extent I do think it's helped me blend in more easily. I recently found out that it was common practice, and a lot of people of different backgrounds ended up losing their names. For me, in my experience, it was all I knew. It was part of the norm for Koreans — part of our entry into Canada was to adapt. So I never questioned it.

WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WORK IN A VARIETY STORE

The hours were very long — our store was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., 365 days a year. It also meant little things like we could never eat dinner as a family because somebody always had to be minding the store. There was a constant threat of being robbed or harassed, and that was just something we had to live with every day. In the late '80s my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and I remember feeling just terrible because we had invested so much in the store and here my mother was in the hospital and yet we had to still keep the store open every day. 

ON LEARNING TO APPRECIATE HER MOTHER'S SACRIFICE

I think the variety store was my mother's fourth child, and she cared deeply about that child because it was the child that fed all of us. We were so dependent on its success that we were all willing to sacrifice whatever we were dealing with or feeling to make sure it was successful. 

The mother in the story represents all the different mothers that I heard about when I was informally interviewing Korean women around my age for a university sociology project. I realized that we all shared very common expectations and a lot of it centred around the expectations that our mothers had of us. The immigrant expectations were the same. It wasn't until many years later when I became a mother myself that I had a much more forgiving attitude and gentler understanding of what my mother did for us. I stopped being as resentful of her fourth child, the store.

Ann Y. K. Choi's comments have been edited and condensed.

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