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  • Writer's pictureAjumma EXP

Ajumma Susan: A master swordswoman, San Diego's Queen of Kendo

Tell us about yourself

First, I must begin with the sincerest gratitude to my parents who raised four children and shaped me into who I am today through their work ethic, consistent push to do better and to help one another.

6 y/o Susan with family in Taiwan (front middle)

When I was 5 my family moved to Taipei, Taiwan due to my father’s assignment in the Korean Embassy. My three siblings and I learned to speak Mandarin organically while playing with the neighborhood kids and watching local TV shows. We eventually took Mandarin lessons in our school.  We were treated like VIPs around town as a service to Diplomats. We even had the police escort us to vacation destinations in Taiwan. The guards saluted our car as we passed by them wherever we went. As a kid I got such a kick out of that.

Susan on L with sister Jenny

When we moved back to Korea after nearly 9 years in Taiwan, I felt like a foreigner in my mother country. I was constantly called on in class to say something in Chinese or English. I attended Taipei American School which was an international school in Taiwan, so I learned to speak English as well as Mandarin. Soon after we settled down in Korea, President Park was assassinated by his cabinet ministers. This event rippled into my own life. My father was closely tied to one of the cabinet ministers charged with the assassination. That meant my father’s job was in serious jeopardy. My parents mobilized quickly to move us out of Korea and immigrated us to the United States and then eventually to Canada. 

At Canadian border, 1982, after crossing over from New York. Susan on far R.

Adjusting to a new life in Canada was tough, we all worked very hard especially my parents to have a steady and comfortable life. While in college I started learning and training in Kendo which is sometimes referred to as Japanese fencing or sword fighting martial art. I liked it enough to continue practicing even to this day.

Susan on L in Tokyo, Japan. Dec 31, 1994.

In fact, after graduating as a Chemical Engineer from Canada I applied to engineering jobs that required me to work or travel to Japan so that I could further learn Kendo. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to work and live in Japan. During which time I learned to speak Japanese and really cemented my passion for Kendo.

After Japan I returned to Boston during which I met my husband Gavin, but he was being transferred to Hewlett Packard Germany. After a long-distance relationship we decided to get married to save money on all that flying around all over the world to see each other. I joined him in Germany and had our first child. That changed our lives forever. We decided to return to the US to raise our family.


Gavin landed a job at Hewlett Packard in San Diego. But after our 2nd child was born we moved again to Singapore. Singapore was so much fun being close to Gavin’s side of the family, meeting so many ex-pat families and local Kendo friends, and traveling all around that region. After 5 years we returned to San Diego.

Through it all the things that were constant in my life was our family life, our willingness to venture out and see the world, and Kendo. Now I teach Kendo in a local private club and at UCSD Recreation class.

Sensei Susan with her students

Despite the many changes, moves, and global experiences, good fortune and luck have been on my side; loving and supportive family, kind and generous friends, transformative teachers and mentors, and more. I am so very grateful to all those people in my life!

What does being an Ajumma mean to you? 

I think being an Ajumma means to be strong and not apologetic about who you are. At the same time, Ajummas always helps others and does whatever is needed to support loved ones and the greater community.  We have super-human strength. So when we put our mind to something, we can accomplish just about anything! 

Aug 2022. Susan passed her 6th Dan, becoming the highest ranked female master in SD County

What is your Ajumma superpower? 

Super execution! Somehow, no matter what, and in whatever situation I get things done! 

What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome?

Raising my our two kids was a certainly a huge challenge since many times I didn't know or have the right words to express to them how much I loved them, wanted what's best for them and what life lessons or values I wanted to empower them with. 

Looking back, I see how I sacrificed my time and energy with them to further my kendo career.  I even subjected them to a lot of wild kendo parties at my house.  Despite that, my kids have grown to be strong, kind, smart and creative young adults who have graduated from colleges in Geophysics and Molecular Bioengineering and working to better this world!  I cannot be prouder of them!!!  My children inspire and motivate me to be a better human being everyday! Love you, Allison and Jon Jon!

Outside family life, I'm proud to have survived working in a male-dominated industry (engineering) in a male dominated country (Japan) as a Korean-born, Canadian woman chemical engineer.

On top of that I was learning a very traditional Japanese martial art or Budo. Before I was dispatched to the Japanese branch office from the US company in Boston my boss sat me down to give me a prep talk of sort. I was a fresh graduate being transferred to a foreign country to help start a branch office in Japan. He wanted me to grasp the challenges that may come my way. He pointed out 3 “discriminations” I may face: 

1) sexual discrimination due to the fact that Asian culture is very chauvinistic especially going into chemical engineering industry; 2) racial discrimination since I was ethnically Korean, a country formerly colonized by Japan; and 3) age discrimination because seniority is highly valued in Japan more so than competency and I was in my early 20s (plus I looked like a 17 year old!) Having a long straight hair didn’t help either. 

My boss cautioned me that most likely I would encounter these prejudices in severity in above order. Surprisingly when I arrived in Japan and started working it was more the reverse order. I was looked upon as a kid so my customers or potential prospects couldn’t really trust my words. The Japanese engineers didn’t really know I was Korean

because I spoke English and lastly, they liked the fact that a female engineer was coming to their factories to teach and lecture about the challenges and optimization of their processes. 

I think I overcame all the prejudices by being positive, hardworking, respectful of others and the local culture and showing them that I could do the job and do it well. I also smiled and be pleasant all the time or most of the time! I even won over the hearts of many very old Japanese senseis (instructors) of Kendo because I showed them how much I wanted to learn and worked hard at it.

Sage Ajumma advice?  (words you live by)

Stay calm and just do it! My Asian zodiac sign is the horse and you know what they say about horses….. hard working! I think work ethic is such an important value that is mis-understood or gets a bad rap.

Working and to be able to work or do something is a privilege and a joy. We all need to do more work behind the scenes whether or not it is recognized or rewarded or celebrated on social media because words and sentiments are nice, but actions speak louder and actually makes this world go around!

Another valuable lesson from Kendo or Budo or in fact Korean culture is humility. C.S. Lewis said humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. This opens your heart to learn from others, empathize with others and embrace humanity with grace and kindness.

Finally, what is your guilty pleasure? 

My guilty pleasure definitely is watching period movies or shows or romantic comedies or tragic drama movies in my PJs on my comfy sofa with my family while drinking hot tea or a great Italian Brunello wine.

Favorite Korean Dish? 

My favorite have to be kimchi jigae and Korean jajangmyon.  I think they bring me comfort more than anything else.  I feel at home.

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