By Greg Hugh
What does a child adopted from China by an American couple experience as they grow up in the U.S.? The idea for this article was proposed by Ming Tchou, founder of the Chinese Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to preserve and promote, through grant making, the understanding of Chinese history, culture, and heritage among all Minnesotans. Tchou thought it would be interesting to get a perspective from such a child, so she and I selected Summer Ahern to be the subject of this article
Summer was adopted by Will and Beth Ahern, residents of Chanhassen, in 1999 when she was 15 months old.
I recently sat down with Summer who just completed her freshman year at the University of St. Thomas to discuss her childhood. I prepared for our interview with a series of questions and while I told her she did not need to answer any questions with which she was not comfortable, she stated that she would be fine with anything I wanted to ask her.
My first question on what she thought about her upbringing as an adopted child, she stated that it was perfectly normal for her and did not experience any identify issues as to being Chinese or American, even though she attended suburban schools that were not very ethnically diverse. While her circle of friends reflected pretty much the student body, she did become friends in third grade with the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents. She still considers this Chinese girl a very close friend even though she thought her friend’s upbringing was much more culturally Chinese, obviously, than her own. Major differences between her and her friend were: friend’s parents didn’t speak as much English; religion was a bigger part of their lives; they ate more authentic foods; and there were more social gatherings and family reunions. The Chinese friend was “brought up in a stricter household where the parents were more of a stickler for grades,” whereas Summer felt her own parents “cared about my grades, but they were more understanding. I also did not grow up in a religious household.”
What influence did her parents have on her upbringing? Summer stated that her father was very determined that she be exposed to Chinese culture as much as possible while her mother was neutral on the subject and preferred she follow a normal childhood and just go with the flow. Since I also know Will personally, I would say that he might be labeled as some kind of “Tiger Dad” who was determined that Summer would be exposed as much as possible to her Chinese heritage. He was instrumental in getting Summer involved with the Chinese Heritage Foundation since 2009. Summer was recognized by the organization as follows:
Summer Ahern – 2016 Young Volunteer Summer has been a longtime volunteer at CHF. She was a constant presence at our annual A Passage to China celebrations at Mall of America, working at various arts tables and, more recently, as a video photographer during the cultural performances at Sears Court. Many of these videos were then uploaded to the jumbotron in the Rotunda for instant replays. Summer also worked hard at our founder, Ming Tchou’s 89th birthday celebration. She created photographic displays and also folded all the intricate paper holders for the CHF chopsticks. Summer was a cheerful volunteer, always willing to step into new challenges, and received our first Young Volunteer Award at our 2016 A Passage to China. Many congratulations, Summer!
Has Summer ever experienced any kind of discrimination? No, although at times she felt it could even have been an advantage since she senses that some people may have treated her differently in a positive way just because she was Chinese! She does not feel she is either Chinese or American but rather an American of Chinese heritage.
Evidently, Summer’s Chinese heritage has not affected her development as evidenced by her résumé of accomplishments, which included her participation in Vantage, Minnetonka High School’s Advanced Business program, professional project experience, volunteer activity along with winning numerous honors and awards during her formative years. Noteworthy accomplishments that you’d expect from any high-achieving red-blooded American teenager.
Retaining her Chinese heritage is not high on her list of things to do. Her main focus is school, friends, family, and a job. She continued to volunteer for the Chinese Heritage Foundation because it is enjoyable and a way to be part of the Asian community, “but I do not do it to retain my Chinese heritage alone,” Summer said. She also had four years of Chinese in middle and high school, and plan to continue in college. “Maybe further down the road I will get a chance to explore more, but because I was raised American, I have not had a curiosity in my heritage,” she added.
What does she treasure most of her Chinese heritage? “If anything, I appreciate the sense of community I have seen in my Chinese friends’ households. The way they care for their elders and the way they put their family first.” A most astute observation from the confident young lady.
This summer she will be interning at Optum, a United Health Group company. She hopes one day to visit China.