BY SAM STRASNER
Matt Parker had never traveled outside the United States before he applied to become an English language instructor at Hubei University of Nationalities in Enshi, Hubei, China, in 2013.
Now that he is in his sixth year teaching his native language in China, Parker can look back and laugh at how overwhelming it was when he first arrived.
“Your senses are just overloaded from the beginning…sights, sounds, smells, tastes, everything just hits you,” said Parker. “It was a major change from rural Arkansas where I was from. I first lived in a city here that had a local population area of 750,000 people, and that’s considered rural.”
Parker’s upbringing took place just outside London, Ark. He graduated from Lamar High School in 2008, but his familiarity with Arkansas Tech University stretched back to a much younger age.
“My father was a non-traditional student finishing his degree and then earning his master’s degree,” said Parker. “So as a young child, I remember my father taking classes and then attending his graduation at Tech when I was around five. That was my first true connection with Tech, but obviously growing up in the area I had been to Tech for various community or school events. I think ultimately I went to ATU because it was close to my home, and when I took my visit there it felt comfortable.”
His comfort at ATU was enhanced by service as a resident assistant in Nutt Hall, membership in Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and the mentorship from student affairs professionals such as Amy Pennington, Kevin Solomon and Will Cooper.
Parker also connected with his English professors. He recalls how Dr. Cory Shaman’s office door was always open to discuss readings, sports and pets. It might have been Dr. Deborah Wilson who inspired Parker to pursue teaching and consider a broader range of possibilities.
“The way (Wilson) taught and the way she pushed you to think about what we read or watched opened your mind to understanding different perspectives of what is around you,” said Parker. “I think that has been extremely beneficial living in another country and culture.”
Parker completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from ATU in May 2012. After serving on the staff in the Florida Southern College Department of Athletics during the 2012-13 academic year, he began a life-changing adventure by teaching at Hubei University of Nationalities for two years.
Now 28, Parker went on to teach English at Guangdong Peizheng College for one year before accepting his current position at Guangzhou Medical University. There, he has taught oral English, journalism, culture, film, listening and presentation skills while also assisting in the editing of various English documents and other media.
“The biggest challenge is taking my teaching style, which is very much western or Socratic style, and having students respond to that here in China,” said Parker. “They are used to just listening and absorbing what the teacher says or the textbook says instead of questioning and discussing with other students and the teacher. Chinese students have had English for a long time, so when you have an oral English class you are really just trying to get them to use what they have learned and helping them with trouble spots.
“It’s always rewarding seeing students achieve something,” continued Parker. “My first class of freshmen just graduated a little over a year ago, and I taught some of them for two years. So seeing them become teachers or work in fields where I know they are using their English really makes me happy. For example, I have many former students who work in international trade and others who work on cruise ships. I think that’s great because these students get to see the world. That’s awesome to me that English can open their world like that.”
Parker continued his ATU connection by completing the Master of Arts degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages in 2016.
His connection to China became stronger in July 2018 when he married Ning Xiaowen.
“I think anywhere you spend at least nine-plus months per year for more than five years is going to feel like home,” said Parker, “but even more so for me since I am blessed to be married to a wonderful lady from China. I’m very proud to be American, but now I love talking about China as well. I want to make sure people don’t have a misunderstanding of China, just like I don’t want Chinese [people] to have a misunderstanding of America. We are different cultures, and we do speak very different languages, but I see similarities between Arkansas and China. I think once you live in a place long enough you realize even though cultures are different, they are still very similar at their root.”
Parker hopes that more ATU alumni will follow in his footsteps and pursue opportunities beyond their comfort zone.
“Living abroad and immersing myself into another culture has taught me the importance of how cultures define a world,” said Parker. “I think it is important we have partnerships and accept cultures that aren’t our own. I’m American, and I’m probably even more proud to be an American since living in China. It is beneficial for us all if we have a more harmonious life between countries and cultures.
“People would say I was adventurous for coming to China in the first place,” continued Parker, “but by living in another culture I’ve become more patient and I eat things that I would have never even considered previously. Every day is a new adventure that prepares [me] for something else.”