Mary Hwang is working at her family’s convenience store, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, in downtown Toronto. Tico, a homeless man, comes in to pick up a loaf of day-old bread, left for him by Mary’s mother.
A young prostitute whom Mary has not seen before enters. As she pays, Mary recognizes her from her fourth-grade class because of a scar on the back of her hand. Mary wonders where Delia has been for the past seven years and how she ended up working as a prostitute. When Delia returns to the store weeks later, bruised and battered, Mary is desperate to help her. However, Delia disappears. Her brother Josh reveals that Delia also recognized Mary but was too embarrassed to say anything, and did not want to bother Mary with her problems. After her assault, Delia moves away.
Mary’s parents have high academic expectations for her. The family never takes vacations and sends money to family in South Korea. Josh calculates that the family must sell “32,102 packs of cigarettes, 4,570 boxes of condoms, and 266,678 copies of the Toronto Star” to pay for Mary’s university degree (Choi 17).
In a flashback scene, Mary reveals how she and her brother were forced to adopt new names upon arriving in Canada in order to attend school.
Mary gets unexpected inspiration for a short story when Leon, a spiky red-haired pimp, enters the store. Later, Mary and her friends, Erin, Rubina, and Linda spy on Leon and a prostitute named Suzi X from her bedroom window. They agree that he looks creepy.
A drunk Leon physically assaults Mary in the middle of the night.
Mary is at home recovering from her injuries. While the police know of the assault, Mary’s parents tell everyone else that she fell down the stairs. Rubina visits Mary and gives her a sky-blue scarf. Mary reveals the truth to her friend.
Mary and her mother head for South Korea to attend her grandmother’s funeral. On the plane, they meet a Korean woman wearing a Gucci watch. Mary recalls her grandmother giving her a “magic” coin and telling her that it would keep her safe in Canada.
At her aunt’s home in Seoul, Mary finds a shoebox full of old family photos. A picture of a white soldier leaves her wondering who he is. Mary finds out about an aunt, Mi-Ra, who disappeared at the end of the Korean War. The white soldier in the photograph is Mir-Ra’s boyfriend.
Mary meets Joon-Ho, her aunt’s neighbour. He speaks English with a British accent. They talk about Korean and Canadian history, and how it was illegal to speak Korean at school during the Japanese occupation. Mary is conflicted when Joon-Ho asks her if she is excited to go home to Canada as Erin had asked her if she was happy to go home to Korea. Joon-Ho gives Mary an origami swan as a parting gift.
Mary and her family attend her grandmother’s funeral at a temple on a mountain top. It is there that she notices a little girl with an old bronze coin dangling around her neck. Remembering the “magic” coin that her grandmother gave her, Mary cries for her loss and for her recent attack.
Near the end of their trip, Mary and her mother take the train to Busan to visit her paternal grandparents. They discover that the money they have been sending to them has been used by Mary’s uncle and aunt to take lavish vacations. Overwhelmed with despair, Mary’s mother breaks down in tears outside the Busan train station. The Gucci lady, who is also visiting family there, consoles her. The women become friends.
Mary finds her magic coin and attaches it to a paper lantern hanging over the cash register in her store. The Gucci lady’s daughter, Kate, becomes friends with Mary, who is glad to finally have a Korean friend. However, their friendship becomes strained when Kate’s father becomes violent during a visit. Several weeks later, Mary sees a smiling Kate with a black boyfriend, but does not say hello because she does not want to disturb them.
Suzie X tells Mary that she was the one who called the police after Leon attacked her. Mary learns that her real name is Mona Lisa.
Joon-Ho arrives in Canada. He intends to study at the University of Toronto after an early release from military service due to a leg injury. He asks Mary to help him choose a Canadian name, and settles on Sean.
Mary invites Joon-Ho, now Sean, to her prom. Erin flirts with him after her own date cancels. After a disastrous night which concludes with an aggressive Sean telling Mary, in Korean, what to do, Mary decides to major in English. She says, “English is beautiful … because it [is] free from the honorifics of the Korean language that place[s] everyone within a strict social hierarchy” (Choi, 96).
Mary’s dad is injured after a bad fall. Sean stays with Mary to help out in the store as Josh is away for the summer. When he calls Mary by her Korean name, Yu-Rhee, she develops feelings for him.
Erin gives Mary Mr. Allen’s phone number and encourages her to call him now that they are graduates. Mary calls her former teacher. When she breaks down in tears talking about her dad’s injuries, Mr. Allen suggests they meet in person to talk.
Mary meets Mr. Allen at a café and learns that he is taking a creating writing class. She gives him her notebook of poems to get his feedback. Later that night Mary, Sean, Erin and Jake go to a nightclub and then to a Korean karaoke. When Mary and Sean are finally alone, they end up having sex after Sean calls Mary by her Korean name.
Mary runs into Kate in the karaoke washroom, and is shocked to learn that Kate had a baby whom her parents forced her to put up for adoption. She now lives with a different boyfriend and works full-time at Loblaw’s as a cashier.
Mr. Allen drops by the store to return Mary’s collection of poems. They end up walking back to his home. When she discovers that he is still handwriting all of his stories, Mary offers to type them up for him.
Sean confronts Mary and demands to know if she is in love with Mr. Allen. She denies it and he reveals that he wants to marry her.
When Mary’s mother observes that Mary never reads books with Korean characters in them, Mary replies that there are none. Mary then realizes that she graduated high school without having studied Asian culture, history, or literature, and could not name any Asian philosopher, scientist, or writer.
Mary calls Mr. Allen, Will, at his insistence. During one of their conversations, they kiss. Will apologizes and tells Mary that he has a girlfriend who is away in Japan for the summer.
Rubina is sent to Pakistan to get married. Linda attends York University, and Mary and Erin start classes at the University of Toronto. Mary’s favourite instructor is her sociology professor, Dr. Rusaline Elliot. Unlike most of her other professors, Rusaline is a young black woman and encourages her students to think critically.
After charging up all her credit cards, Mary is desperate to find a paying job. She finds one at the daycare that Linda works at. She also tutors some of Will’s students.
Mary tells Will that she is the only Asian person in her English class, although she is used to it. He tells her she can look over some of his old essays as the curriculum has not changed since he graduated.
When a bird flies into the store, Mrs. O’Doherty says that it is bad luck. She is reading an article about the latest suicide at the Bloor Viaduct. Desperate to catch the bird, Mary calls Sean for help. He captures it by killing it.
Mary meets Sean’s parents during their visit to Canada. She is stunned to find out that the parents have already discussed a possible marriage match. Sean’s mother reminds her of a Korean version of Morticia from the Addams Family. During a dinner with the two families, Mary becomes ill listening to Sean’s mother complain about everything from the food to Mary’s posture. Mary announces, “I can’t do this,” and storms out of the restaurant.
Will has transformed from a good-natured English teacher to a depressed writer. While watering his plants, Mary thinks that she sees Sean outside, and wonders if he might be following her.
Mary agrees to meet Sean at the university library and is frustrated to hear that he still wants to marry her. She tells him that she loves Will and begs Sean to leave her alone.
Mary finally gets published in a poetry magazine and shows Will, who does not seem happy for her. He tells her that his girlfriend broke up with him. Mary convinces him to keep writing, which he agrees to do.
Kate, whom Mary runs into by chance, tells her that she saw Erin with Sean. Erin later confirms they met. Mary realizes that this is how Sean knew about the details of her daily life.
Mrs. O’Doherty’s granddaughter comes to the story to tell Mary that her grandmother has passed away. She gives Mary a bag full of old diaries that contain her grandmother’s observations of those living in the neighbourhood. She believes Mary might want them since Mary is often mentioned in them.
Mary’s supervisor at the daycare shows her a security tape of Sean in the parking lot and tells her that he cannot be hanging out there. Angry that he is stalking her, Mary goes to Sean’s house to confront him, but he is not home. Instead, she sees a bulletin board full of images of her. She also finds one of his essays with a warning message from his professor about plagiarizing. Letters from his parents reveal their plan to immigrant to Canada after Sean marries Mary.
Sean arrives and begs for Mary’s help with his academic papers. His English is not strong enough to complete papers at the Master’s degree level. In exchange for her help, he promises to leave her alone.
By reading Mrs. O’Doherty’s diary, Mary learns that she knew the truth about Mary’s attack. She also discovers Tico’s real name, Tracy, and wonders how Mrs. O’Doherty knew so much about everyone.
Mary gets a call from Kate to meet her at the park. Kate tells Mary that she hates her mother and that the child she gave up for adoption will hate her when she gets older for giving her up. Her new boyfriend kicked her out and desperate, she moved back to her parents’ house. Mary tells her that Kate is not alone in making mistakes as she has just been fired from the daycare.
Will tries to persuade Mary to go to Paris with him. The temptation to escape from her life intrigues her. She says that she will think about it.
Sean confesses that he never graduated from a university in Korea. His father falsified papers on his behalf to get him into the University of Toronto. Mary helps him prepare a statement to share with the university.
A friend of the family, Mr. Young, is brutally attacked during an armed robbery.
Sean does not show up for his hearing at the university. Mary, who speaks on his behalf, does her best to present his case: “I talked about the burdens, the great expectations we – immigrant students, visa students – shouldered” (Choi 196). The panel decides to expel Sean.
Mary finds Sean drunk in his room. He breaks down and says, “My father has lied and covered for me my entire life. I even started to believe in the lies” (Choi 202). Sean still wants to marry her and shows her an engagement ring. When Mary tells him that she is in love with Will Allen, Sean attacks hers. She gets away by telling him that she will scream so loud, the landlady, who is home entertaining friends, will hear.
Mary’s mother’s long-lost sister, Mi-Ra, has tracked her down and written to her. She lives in New York City and plans to visit. Overjoyed, Mary’s mother hugs her daughter, which comes as a surprise to Mary since her family does not hug.
Mary visits Will at his place. When he asks her if she has decided to go to Paris, she says nothing. They have sex for the first time.
Mary visits Kate at the hospital after Kate attempts to take her life. They talk and Mary reveals that Will has invited her to go to France. Kate says she should go and live life without worrying about her mother’s approval. Mary feels helpless as she does not know how to help Kate. She is reminded of Delia, the prostitute, whom she also wanted to help but could not.
Back at home, Mary discovers that Sean has visited the store to talk with her parents about marriage. Her mother told him that they wanted Mary to finish her studies first. To Mary’s dismay, Sean will be coming back to help with the remainder of the store’s renovations.
Mary is upset that Will is unwilling to try to eat at Korean restaurants or read books by Asian-American and Asian-Canadian writers.
Mary has a bad feeling after Sean comes to help in the store. Later that night, the store’s alarm goes off. While Mary’s parents go to check it, an explosion causes the store to catch on fire. Mary’s mother is killed when a beam falls on her.
Mary and Josh return to the store a few days later to find flowers and other gifts left behind by community members. Mary tells Josh that even though one of their customers called their store lucky, it has never allowed them to eat together as a family and made them work ridiculous hours (7:00 am – 11:00 pm, 365 days a year). The family had lived in constant fear of being robbed, when in fact it was the store robbing from them.
Mary and her dad pick up her aunts coming to Canada for Mary’s mother’s funeral. One aunt tells Mary that Sean’s mother has been bragging about his life in Canada. Mary reveals the truth about his academic dishonesty.
Mary meets her Aunt Mi-Ra for the first time.
At the funeral, Mi-Ra tells Mary that she only began searching for her sisters after finding out that their mother had died. She tells her that in 1953, her mother forced Mi-Ra to choose between the man she was in love with or her. Because she was deeply in love, she chose to leave for America.
Will does not attend the funeral even though he had promised he would. Erin wonders why Sean is not there. After talking with her friends, Mary wonders if Sean could some how be responsible for the store’s explosion as he had been the last person working on its wiring.
Investigators question the family about the store and Mary learns that it was deliberately sabotaged. A detective assigned to the case asks Mary questions about Sean and gives her his card.
Mary calls Sean on the phone who admits he accidentally killed her mother. “I swear I never meant to hurt her” (Choi 240). He breaks down in tears. Mary, who has already called the detective, tells her father everything that has happened.
Sean is found dead, having jumped from the Bloor Viaduct. Kate advises Mary to keep moving forward. Kat has since enrolled in a college to study photography. Kate’s father is gravely ill.
Mary tells Kate that she hates being Korean and that their parents did not ask them if they wanted to move to Canada. Mary decides to become a writer because it is her life, not her mother’s.
Mary’s father struggles with his loss. Mary, her father, and brother finally come together to grieve as a family.
Mary finds the paper swan that Joon-Ho gave her when they first met in Korea. She cannot forgive him for killing her mother, although she wonders if it was somehow her fault as well. She rips the swan into pieces and throws the paper out her bedroom window.
On his birthday, Will tells Mary that he cannot go to Paris without her. Mary is still angry that he did not attend her mother’s funeral. They argue and Will becomes verbally abusive. Mary stays calm and leaves.
While cleaning out her mother’s closet Mary finds the dress that her mother wore when they immigrated to Canada in 1975. She puts it on. Mary also finds receipts for her piano and old love letters that her parents exchanged. She gains a deeper understanding and appreciation for her mother’s sacrifices.
The store reopens a few months later. Josh helps Mary realize a difficult truth about her relationship with her mother: “We’d spent our lives together in a constant stage of struggle, each trying to gain some sense of control. Could we have wanted the same thing all along (Choi 265)?”
Tico, the homeless man, gives Mary a bag full of bread tags, one for each day-old loaf of bread Mary’s mother had given him over the years. Mary gives him a loaf of bread. He tells her that she is just like her mother.
Three years later, Mary graduates from university with a double major in Sociology and English. Mi-Ra is at convocation. After the ceremony, Mary meets with Erin who reassures her that her mother would have been proud of her. The family takes several photos before heading back to the store to give Josh a break.