With her gold-rimmed glasses, broad cheekbones, and cropped white hair, Susan Ahn Cuddy of Los Angeles looks like a typical Korean grandma. But when Susan speaks, people are amazed to hear her perfect Americanized English.
The second-generation Korean-American kids gape and ask, “How does this super-old granny speak better English than our middle-aged parents?” And when Susan reveals that she’s the daughter of celebrated patriot Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, it’s the older generation whose eyes widen, this time with reverence and awe. It’s a constant reminder of what people used to tell Susan: “Dosan is not just your father. He is the father of Korea.”
Susan, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is the original second-generation Korean-American. She’s the first daughter and third of five children born to Dosan and Helen Ahn, who in 1902 became the first married Korean couple to enter the United States. Their Korean passports numbered 51 and 52.
To understand Dosan’s and Susan’s legacy is to understand pre–World War II Korea. Christianity started blossoming in the Korean peninsula in the late 19th century, when Protestant American missionaries including Mary Scranton, Henry Appenzeller, Samuel Moffett, and Horace Underwood crossed oceans to a tiny peninsula once nicknamed “The Hermit Kingdom” for its distrust of foreigners. The missionaries worked as doctors and educators while preaching the gospel to their patients and students.
Dosan, born in 1878, was a penniless and uneducated teenager in Seoul, until an American Presbyterian missionary school sheltered, fed, educated, and ultimately baptized him. Dosan then moved to the United States to learn more theology and study American democracy, and to become the hardest-working citrus picker and toilet scrubber in California.
“Pick each and every orange as carefully as if your country’s independence depended on it,” he once famously said. Even as an orange picker and houseboy in Riverside, Calif., Dosan so impressed his American employers with his work ethic that they hired more Korean workers—this during the Chinese Exclusion Act era, when most Americans mistook Koreans for Japanese or Chinese. In this way, Dosan first modeled what he preached: “If we are to reform the nation, we need to reform each one of us individually.”
Dosan and Helen became an anchor for early 20th-century Korean communities in San Francisco, and then Riverside and Los Angeles. Wherever he went, Dosan unified his countrymen under one roof, sharing one pot of kimchee, pickled spicy vegetables. His early introduction to Christianity instilled in him a great awareness of love’s transformative power. Only true love and fellowship, he often said, can change his people.
In 1907, the major Korean city of Pyongyang—now, tragically, the capital of North Korea—trembled with thousands of wailing, weeping prayers of repentance following a church meeting led by missionaries. That event, later termed “The Great Pyongyang Revival,” fired up a zeal for evangelism and an explosion of churches across Korea. Missionary efforts floundered in Japan and China, but Christianity flourished in feudalistic, oppressed Korea, as extreme physical hardship and social injustice created a gaping desperation for spiritual nourishment. Sixteen of the 33 signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence (modeled after the American version) professed Christ.
Starting that year, for three decades Dosan left home often to go to Korea and other countries. Susan was born in downtown Los Angeles, a city then with about 80 Korean residents, on Jan. 16, 1915—five years after Japan annexed Korea. For 30 years of her life, she had no country. And for most of her life, she had no father.
Dosan had other roles to fulfill. He was a revolutionary patriot who led Korea’s independence movement during the Japanese Occupation, a democratic pioneer who created self-governing associations and societies, a founding father who drafted the first constitution later adopted by the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and eventually a martyr who died under Japanese torture and imprisonment.
When Dosan was home in California—which was rare—the Ahn house turned into a community center, noisy with visitors, speeches, and sermons. Susan’s mom cooked mountains of fat-grained rice and North Korean–style kimchee, and sent her to buy salted herring from the Jewish deli. While Dosan gave historical speeches on independence and reformation—he was famous for his oratory skills—Susan and her siblings peeked down from the second floor balcony and made spitballs.
Susan went beyond spitballs. In 1942, four years after her father died in Seoul, Susan joined the U.S. Navy “to get even with the Japanese,” according to an interview then. Members of the Korean community clucked their tongues—“That’s not proper for Dosan’s daughter!”—and sent eligible Korean bachelors to knock on her door. While Susan hid upstairs, her mother politely sent the suitors away and gave Susan her proud approval to join the war.
Susan soon became the first female and Asian gunnery officer to train U.S. Navy and Royal Air Force pilots. She said in a radio interview, “Father had taught us to believe so thoroughly in American democracy and in the Christian way of life, that I felt I must fight for it the best way I know how.” She was later promoted to lieutenant.
After the war, Susan worked for U.S. Naval Intelligence and the Library of Congress, then transferred to the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., to lead a team of 300 agents working on top-secret Cold War projects. In 1947, she scandalized her community further by marrying an American Irishman, Francis X. Cuddy, who also worked for the Department of Defense as a code breaker.
After Susan retired in 1959, the Cuddys moved back to Los Angeles with their two children. Like her father, Susan stayed active within her local Korean-American community. She attended a Korean Methodist church on Sundays, worried that younger Koreans would forget their heritage, then worried about their becoming insular as the Korean community burgeoned. Some family traits are hard to lose.
Today, North Korea suffers under tyranny, and the South Korean churches are far from perfect, but they are the early missionaries’ living legacy. South Korea sends out the world’s fifth largest number of missionaries per million church members. Almost 80 percent of Korean-Americans say they’re affiliated with a church. The prayers of missionaries did not go to waste. After all, God’s legacy is never stagnant, never stale, never fruitless. A legacy: Susan Ahn Cuddy, at a museum dedicated to Korean-American immigrants near Los Angeles next to a panel depicting thousands of Korean immigrants who came to the United States, including a likeness of herself at about age 4 and her younger sister Soorah, at about age 2.