What began as an accidental meeting in 2003 has culminated into 13 new honorary citizens of Barbourville, although most of them can’t speak English.
In 2003, 21 Chinese teachers from Shenzhen, China, visited Union College to learn how to teach English to their students.
In the early course of their stay, Kangji “Peggy” Peng crossed paths with a Union College nurse, a chance meeting that quickly blossomed into a true friendship.
Sandra Nickell convinced her new friend that if she and her fellow teachers really wanted to learn about true American lifestyles, they would need to immerse themselves into the culture.
The Chinese visitors agreed and quickly changed their living arrangements from staying in the campus dorms to taking a leap of faith and moving in with local Barbourville families.
Fast-forward 11 years and “Peggy” Peng has returned to Barbourville, along with 12 other friends and family members. The group’s original plans would have taken them straight on to New York City from San Francisco in their national travels, but Peng instead convinced her delegation to make a detour to her “second home” in Barbourville.
“We have been moved and touched by the kindness of your people,” said Peng. “The environment is so beautiful, and the people we have met have lots of love in their hearts.”
Since arriving in Barbourville, where the delegation once again stayed with local families, the Chinese visitors have taken in a country hayride and a barbeque, gone horseback riding, as well as participating in a friendly Chinese versus American dumpling war at the home of Susan Liford.
The group also took in their first-ever church service at the First Baptist Church. The visitors were enthralled by the service, and even though most of them could not understand the language, they were taken in by the music and atmosphere.
“The songs speak words that comfort your heart,” Peng interpreted for one of her fellow visitors.
Monday, Union College hosted a reception in the Chinese visitors’ honor. David Johns, Vice President of Academic Affairs, welcomed the delegation on behalf of Union College President Marcia Hawkins.
“We’re looking to build on our international connections around the world,” said Johns. This group has a wonderful connection with Barbourville, and we want to strengthen that relationship.”
Johns also invited the younger visitors — with the help of Peng’s language interpretation — to give some thought to coming back to Union for their college education.
Barbourville Mayor Darren West then presented “Peggy” Peng with the Key to the City of Barbourville, and after presenting each of the visitors with a Certificate of Appreciation, declared them all honorary citizens of Barbourville.
“To quote the famous Humphrey Bogart,” said Mayor West, “Of of the places in all the world, they decided to come to Barbourville. It’s a humbling experience to see how these people gave up their week-long trip to the big city of New York in order to spend a few more days in our little town. It was a pleasure to speak to each of them and in return, have them invite me to visit their home in China.
The mayor, who as a representative of the local government, was somewhat of a celebrity to the Chinese delegation. The Chinese, Peng explained, were far removed from their government and were shocked that the community knew who their mayor was, much less be able to speak with him one on one. Unaware of his celebrity status, Mayor West graciously accepted the attention and posed for numerous photos with the visitors.
“The lasting friendships and relationships made through this fellowship all came about through sharing the love of God,” said Nickell. “They (the Chinese) will see that He’s not just a Western God, but that He is there for all of us. Because of this, we all can treat each other with respect and love.”
Before the delegation continues on to New York, which will be their last stop before returning home to China, they have plans to visit Cumberland Falls, spend a day on Laurel Lake, and most importantly, visit the home of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Story by Bobbie Poynter of the Mountain Advocate