Patsy Surh O’Connell

“My father never complained, ‘It’s hot or it’s cold or I’m hungry’— anything. So, who am I to complain? We have such a good life. You have to be a good citizen, do something good for people.”

- Patsy Surh O’Connell

patsy surh o'connell

The Asia Pacific Cultural Center in Tacoma represents 47 countries and cultures. The center strives to bridge generations and communities through arts, culture, education and business. Patsy is top, center, wearing stripes. Asia Pacific Cultural Center

Top left: Patsy was eager to move to the U.S. in 1963, but it meant leaving her family behind in the Republic of Korea. “I am grateful to my mother for letting me go, so I could become me. Letting a child go away is the only way for the child to grow into their own selves, and she knew that.” Surh family collection

Top right: Life’s Continuing Miracle “I now focus primarily on painting in ink on rice paper. My creative work constitutes a promise to myself to continue exploring my heritage while becoming American.” Patsy Surh O’Connell

Bottom left: Patsy’s grandfather, Byung Kyu Surh, was among the first Koreans to graduate from college in the U.S. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1898 from Roanoke College and advanced to Princeton where he became a friend of Professor Woodrow Wilson, who would become the 28th American president. Surh family collection

Bottom right: Patsy demonstrates a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Asia Pacific Cultural Center

Who is she?

Inspired by the travails of her Korean parents, Patsy Surh O’Connell has dedicated the last 20 years to preserving and celebrating the diverse cultures of Washington State’s Asia Pacific community.

During World War II, the Japanese Army accused Patsy’s father of espionage. He was incarcerated in China for nine months. His pregnant wife was allowed only intermittent visits. “My mother would take my brother Ronny and clean clothes for my father to change into because his soiled clothes were full of lice. Japanese interrogators would toss the prisoners out of the window. My father told me it was the scariest time of his life.” Patsy was born in war-torn Shanghai in 1943.

The Surh family soon moved to Seoul. Patsy was 7 when the Korean War broke out. The invading North Koreans—“they looked just like us”—took over the Surhs’ large home to use as offices. Patsy’s father was forced into hiding. The family eventually fled to safety in Busan, the port city at the bottom of the Korean peninsula.

Patsy moved to the U.S. in 1963 to continue her education. The legacy of her parents lives on in the Asia Pacific Cultural Center she founded in 1996. “Our communities will have a place to gather, express their cultures, tell their stories and connect with each other.”