Connection and Citizenship

By Emily

(Picture on the right shows Kathy-Sue’s housewarming gift…a handmade doll from Shanghai made by one of her friends.)

My Kentucky’s Kitchen Table assignment took place in my hometown of Barbourville on Sunday, November 11. This is a small, rural town of about 3,165 people located in Southeastern Kentucky. It is a place where families stay close and dialect is unique. I would say that people from Barbourville and surrounding are a group of distinct tradition and culture. That being said, everyone at my table is currently living in Barbourville, but we each are diverse in our own ways. I began the conversation by describing myself.


My name is Emily. I am 19 years old, a dancer, a student, and a family girl. I am a freshman at WKU, and I do not currently have a major nor an idea of what I want to do when I grow up.


I then asked how they would describe themselves.


Kathy-Sue describes herself as an American ex-patriot who lived overseas (mostly Shanghai, China) for 19 years. She is a world citizen. She’s 52, single, and she adopted 2 kids from China.


Jolene, daughter of Kathy-Sue, is 14 and was born in Hunan, China. When she was a baby, she was left outside of a school then put into foster care. She went with a foster family but was adopted at 10 months old, and she lived in China until she was 6.


Reagan, classmate of Jolene, is 15. She has a twin brother. At birth, she was neglected of nutrients because “her brother took all of them”. She was then placed in an incubator beside him for two days, and Reagan says he saved her life. She was born in Barbourville and has lived there her whole life.


Lydia, who is my next-door neighbor, is 17 and a senior in high school. She is a farmer, is raised in a Christian home, and plans to go away for college.


Deborah, who works with my mom, was born in Pittsburg. Despite her Chinese descent, her family is at least 2 generations removed from China. In fact, her dad’s family lived in Jamaica for a while. She lived her younger life for 12 years in Clermont-Ferrand, France. She went to college at Emery University in Georgia and now works for HealthCore (THE Dr.Oz’s nonprofit).


Mark, my dad, is white and a Christian. He is a husband and father and ex-coal miner. He is a decent person.


Monica, my mom, is 48 and a public school teacher with 2 daughters. She is married to my dad. Both Mark and Monica have lived in Southeastern Kentucky for their whole life.


After conversation and questions about the experiences of those at the table, I dove right into discussion.


“Aside from voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?”


Blatantly speaking, I never really got an answer from my dinner crowd. Instead, we enjoyed many antidotes and tales of world travels and personal experience. Don’t get me wrong, this made great conversation…but I am getting graded after all. I was stumped as to why we weren’t just answering the question outright. Was I missing something?


After thinking really hard about my dinner conversation that “answered none of my questions”, a thought popped into my head. Personal experience is welcome. I remember hearing the words from Mrs.Gish in class and that’s when I realized it was the solution to my dinner dilemma.


This reminds me of “The Power of Patience” by Jennifer Roberts that we read in class. I really had to take a step back and wait for the answers to come to me, and I couldn’t help but feeling I was a student who has the assignment of staring at a painting for 3 hours. But I really think I get it now.


“Do you know your neighbors? Why or why not?”


My mom, who knows most people in Barbourville, could tell you all about our neighbors: what church they go to, where they went to high school, their mothers name, etc. She chimed in with a definite YES. She explained that she knows them because she grew up knowing them, but beyond that, she, my dad, and myself have a relationship with our neighbors. We make small talk after pulling in the driveway and would bring an abundance of casserole in times of need.


Some had a different story.


“Deborah, what were your neighbors like in France?”


She explained that she was attending a school for kids whose parents worked for American companies. She also lived next to them, so of course she knew them. An interesting part about her time in France was that her classmates never asked her where she is from. She explained by saying that in America everyone asks her where she is from (presuming she is from China because she does have traditional Chinese features), and she has to explain that she has never lived in China. In fact, she speaks better French than Chinese.


“I hate that question,” Deborah said, “People in France knew I was American because of my English.”


This was very eye opening to me. I guess I never understood that it is presumptuous to assume your ethnicity equals your personal origins, but there are so many other factors to observe like language/dialect.


Part of the conversation was dedicated to appreciating where we are living.


Kathy-Sue told us her adoption story while living in China. She was far into the adoption process. They had already sent her pictures to “accept or reject” the kid, and she thought that was nonsense whichever one they presented was going to be ‘her kid’. Later on, they sent the “Chinese UPS” to give her a letter with details about picking up her child. Child in hand she returned back to America. I remember her describing the day she made it back. When she saw the American flag for the first time, she was in awe. Kathy-Sue says she still gets chills when listening to the national anthem being sung or the pledge being recited. I can tell her world travels has brought a much deeper appreciation of what America stands for. She has seen places where “you just take what you get” when it comes to government. She explained how precious and essential it is to take part in government because so many others can’t.


My dad added “and you know when you got that adoption letter that was the only version of a mailing company in China…and it was run by the government, whereas we have many.”


If I were to use one word to describe what citizenship means to my dinner table, it would be connection. Everyone is connected in society somehow. We are all connected on a large scale, but more tedious are connections we have in daily lives…the relationships we make with those we are living around. Even one connection we make with someone drives us to be good citizens to others. Maybe you helped someone move houses or made dinner after a loved one died or even simply are in good standing with your neighbors. All are key ingredients to daily citizenship.


Largescale citizenships requires a bit more soul searching.


Close to the end of the dinner I asked, “What does citizenship look like for you personally in this stage of your life?” I explained by saying ‘my citizenship’ is figuring out how I can contribute to society in the long run by choosing a major I not only enjoy but have talents in. For me, that will equal maximum citizenship.


Lydia answered that her citizenship looked like farming. If she can farm her whole life, that’ll allow her to connect with people around the country and give back in some way.


Jolene said her citizenship was to build her school’s student council program so students will have more of a voice in her school.


Reagan’s citizenship looks like living every minute with a smile because it is a miracle that she is alive.


Deborah’s citizenship includes going back to school in order to help translate policies to affective programs like school lunch programs.


Monica and Mark said their citizenship looks like giving more of their time to community and church events as new empty nesters.


Kathy-Sue says citizenship for her is to continue travelling and investing in the world once her kids are out of high school.


This is what citizenship on a large scale looks like.


A key question we ask in class is “how can we live better together?” and I would say that connection and citizenship is a key factor in living better together. The more we are connected the more we understand each other’s needs and can address them with actions of citizenship.


The fact is we all have something to contribute. The choice is whether or not we are going to contribute that into society. The action of doing so is citizenship. Small or large. In daily life or in contributing your whole life to it. As simple as honesty, as widescale as nonprofit organization. As citizens of the world, we ARE obligated to give what we have in order to create a better society.


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