A Q&A fireside chat about Susan Ahn Cuddy, the first female officer in the U.S. Navy. Follow along with the video and timestamps below where we can hear first-hand stories from her children, Flip and Christine Cuddy.
Flip Cuddy - Historian
What I believe I am saying is the truth, based on my research, education and life experience but my grandfather and his whole philosophy, in which my mom’s was too, was to seek the truth. I mean, if you believe what I say, you have to go the next step to research, make sure that what I’m saying is not propaganda. You’ll find out I don’t want to be the “I told you” person.
About 1987 when I started really getting serious about our family’s legacy and i’m doing this more because of my family than because my ethnicity.I mean I know the Irish side of my family too which is pretty funny. And it’s hard because they don’t teach it right so the stuff in English is out there but the Korean scholars try to hide it
Revision! Revision is a big word right now (laughs).
Yes, you do have every right to get angry at other people for revising your culture and your history but it’s like you’re doing the exactly the same thing, so its like you’re being such a hypocrite right now.
My mom had this hangup because she was born here, and she would acquiesce to people who were full Korean sometimes. And I go Mom! These are the exact person that your father was warning you people about, their character was so corrupt. But she spoke Pyongyang dialect, a North Korean dialect, an old Korean, and she spoke it fluently, like she could do an interview and people would know what she was saying
But she would tell people she wouldn’t speak Korean. And I remember we were in Korea giving a speech and some guy yelled down in the crowd and it was really insulting and my mom didn’t lose a step but I go, “See Mom, if you tell people you don’t speak Korean, you set yourself up for stuff like that.” She hid that part of her, for having that amazing skill, or that gift of that language…
She had a knack for languages, you know, for her Navy career, she studies a little bit of Chinese, a little bit of Russian.And I had to squeeze this stuff out of her, and one day I was looking through her papers and I go, “Hey mom, what’s this? This thing from USC that you had your fellowship, and here is your Vietnamese dictionary?”(laughs). And so, one day my mom slapped me at an event, because she and I gave a speech together at a Navy base, and she then she went back to sit down in the audience and I continued, and so when I sat down next to her, she slapped me on the leg and then she goes, “I didn’t know you knew so much about me.”
Q: There’s this movement with the youth, because unemployment’s so high. It’s hard to get a job even if you come out of one of the three SKY universities. Similar to your grandfather, Susan was for reforming the Korean education system. If she were still alive today and she sees the effect that it has on the Korean youth, that they feel lost and betrayed by the system, what do you think she would have told them?
A: “Life’s not fair.” But what’s funny is, not funny, but, she knew what “Hell Joseon” was. I’ve studied it and I talk about it. Kelly, I don’t know if you know the term “Hell Joseon.” Joseon is the traditional name for Korea. Today’s youth and people that lived there for years, and it went up last year, 70% of the people that live in Korea don’t want to live there. And they have no opportunity - no future, just like Kyungseo said. My grandfather’s philosophy was, “discouragement of the youth is the death of the nation.” And so my mom was always, you know, trying to get the youth, as Americans, as Koreans, you know, to cope with these problems better, and young people and especially young women would come here to the house seeking advice because the conflict that they had at home with their identity, with the tradition that their parents were forcing on them, and what they were learning here in America, in school or in society was conflict. My grandfather also said that if you get a good education and you do this, you know, you should have a good life.
The young people’s dissatisfaction and depression with the future of life is all based on real stuff. You know, it’s not them. It’s the country. It’s the society. It’s what’s happened to it.
Q: How do we get young people to make peace with their dual identity? What would be your advice for that? I always think I could cherry pick this, but in some instances it’s looked down upon.
A: I think these days, you know, cherry picking is okay, but you have to realize what you left out. You have to analyze - that’s what seeking the truth is. You have to figure out what the real reasons that these things work or they don’t work. You know a lot of it is stigma. Social stigma based on your group, your family, or what. If they can’t handle your individual understanding, but you have to know the truth about what you want to be, what you want to do, what you want to think. Because, if you become a victim of propaganda, then you really don’t have a strong identity, because it falls apart.
Q: What is the secret to her resilience? Some people are more resilient than others, so what’s the difference between the two?
A: Right right, I mean she wasn’t really thinking about being resilient. I think she - I mean I do think it had - I do think it had to do with her father. I mean that he had gone through so much and the family was very aware of what he had gone through so it was like “well, whatever is happening to me is not that hard.” You know? It’s like well, if you grow up where your dad has been, you know, writing you letters from prison, and that kind of thing, you know? Then, it’s like all, “OK, so I’m, you know, there’s racial prejudice or whatever, but, I mean, that’s not the - it’s not as bad, and I’ll overcome it. She never complained.I mean, she never said, “oh dear, I’ve had a tough time.” It was just kind of normal. She just - you know more than resilience, I say it was like persistence. She kept going. It’s like, “ok, whatever happened, ok now what?”
When she - in Los Angeles, when she wanted to join the navy and they said “well you can’t be an officer, cause you’re Asian.” She basically just said “well, I’m gonna go sign up on the east coast.” She did it. And probably because they didn’t have a lot of Asians on the east coast, they didn’t even know how to be prejudiced yet. When you have a lot of sort of a minority around, then you know, people get you know, racist or whatever. But if you’re, you know, in wherever, in Pennsylvania or something, and you know there aren’t a lot of Asians I think - they perceived Asians as white, you know, that’s what the difference was. I don't know whether you ever heard the story about when she got on the bus in Georgia, I think it was? And it had seats for colored and white, and she went right to the back and sat on the colored section.And her friends, who were these other, you know, WAVES, who were white, said “oh no no! Susie, no you sit up here. You don’t sit back there.” She said, “oh yeah I do. I’m colored. I’m sitting back here.” But that was just her - I mean she was very strong. But as I said, she was persistent. So that if she didn’t get what she wanted in Los Angeles, she wasn’t going to sit around and complain here. She also wasn’t going to accept that she couldn’t be an officer.She just figured out where she could go and get in. And she did it.