Eric Henry on his book, The Future Conditional

Interview by Andy Zhenzhou Tan

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: An explicit orienting question for the book is “Why teach an entire nation English?” (4) Personally or sociologically, this “why” question had seldom dawned on me, a lucky survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey many of your informants aspired to. Nonetheless, or therefore, this question struck me as a giant elephant in the room. How did it become a question for you? What are some of the answers you explore in the book?

Eric Henry: Honestly it was not a topic I went looking for. Before I started a doctorate in anthropology I was an English teacher in China, thinking I could study Mandarin and pay off some debts at the same time. One of the things that struck me was that, with adult students, very few of them were in a situation or a job where they would actually need to use the language on a regular basis. There was a certain absurdity to it: here I was, with no formal training, teaching English to railway engineers or bureaucrats. My only qualification was that I had grown up speaking the language and the students had not. This kind of realization drove many of the foreign teachers I worked with to a kind of cynicism, but for me it prompted questions I could explore ethnographically. I realized that we naturalize this desire for English on a global scale – but most of the students did not care for the language itself, only for its capacity to shape their own futures. When I really started to listen to those students, and by this time I was back doing fieldwork, I learned that the desire to speak English is always entangled with dreams of the future: with going abroad, accumulating wealth, or just being seen as someone in control of their lives rather than being left behind by China’s burgeoning social transformations. Most of the people I talked to identified the last twenty years as the most important in all of China’s long history, a time that is radically reconfiguring relations between self and society on the one hand, and China and the world on the other. Saying “I speak English,” is therefore a powerful claim to identity under new regimes of neoliberal capitalism and globalization.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: This ethnography of contemporary speech practices and English language learning in Northeast China, on a more ambitious scale, is also an intervention in the study of modernity. What is your approach to modernity in this book? What are some of the analytic concepts central to this approach? Why is it preferable over other approaches?

Eric Henry: I am a linguistic anthropologist, so naturally I look to language and discourse as primary constituents of social phenomena. It has always struck me that modernity is often defined in terms of specific economic, political or social metrics: rational markets, democracy, the retreat of the state and so on. In contrast, the people I worked with in Shenyang understood modernity through narratives about the changes going on around them; and the languages people used to talk about those changes seemed to have the power to launch this new state of being. I had the chance to dig into some missionary archives related to language teaching in China in the 1920s, and I was able to read some of the essays Chinese students wrote for their English teachers. They were incredible – one, by a young nursing student, imagined the development of a “moral hospital” in China, where intractable young people would be sent for moral instruction. In her story, the moral hospital struggles for legitimacy until the President of China commits his own son to their care. At that point the eyes of the world turn to the hospital and recognize the value of China’s civilization, extending to the nation an opportunity for global leadership. I realized that this young student understood her own language study in much the same terms as Chinese people today, as a way of transforming Chinese society and achieving international recognition; in other words, as a way of becoming modern. This is what I call discursive modernity – it is the ways in which modernity is constituted out of talk about the material or social changes that surround people as they navigate through new landscapes, new technologies and new forms of social position or status. I think this approach frees us from trying to measure abstract qualities such as “development” or “modernization” and focus instead on how people both experience the forces of change and locate themselves as social actors in relation to them.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 2 analyzes the distinct cultural geography of post-socialist China based on the paradigmatic form of the wall and what you term the moral economy of “recursive enclosure”. The cover photo of the book, showing a residential apartment complex I suppose, seems to be taken from this chapter. What is the structural place of this cultural geographical analysis in a book explicitly about speech practices? What is the limit to the claim about “distinctness”? To what extent is the moral economy of “recursive enclosure” more universal?

Eric Henry: Landscapes are always suffused with symbolic values – it is part of what I would consider a universal human process of place-making. We can see evidence of this anytime we talk about urban or rural, or when we label a place as being in a “pristine” state of nature. At the same time, I think there is something unique about China and the contemporary remnants of an imperial technology of boundary-making and enclosure. Traditional architecture in China, from temples to palaces to the peasant homestead, emphasized enclosure. Structures abutted the margins of the property and were inward-focused, with a series of increasingly private and intimate spaces marked off by walls, panels, curtains, and other boundaries. Cities and, at a larger scale, the empire itself were also enclosed by walls marking off center and periphery. These spatial configurations were designed to, as I argue, signify a kind of timeless continuity for the empire and the enduring relationship between the human and cosmological worlds. People – whether they be priests, peasants or emperors – doing similar types of rituals, in similar types of spaces, and using a common language asserted the unity and universality of the imperial state. As I argue in the book, however, in today’s China the spaces and space-making practices remain, but the types or rituals, behavior and language in each are now different. Residences, schools, factories, and offices are still surrounded by walls, with imposing gates dividing interior from exterior. But the imperial universality has been shattered into a landscape that is not only divided in terms of wealth, but also in terms of time. Some people feel like they are ahead, and others like they are being left behind.

One day in Shenyang I hopped on a minibus headed out on a rural route, just to see where it would take me. When I came back, some of my Chinese friends were amazed – how on earth could you find your way when all the people out there speak in dialect? You have to understand, a lot of people in the city speak the dialect too, but there is this feeling in urban China of a separation and distinctness from rural areas, almost as if the people living there are a different kind of citizen. The countryside is luohou, which means stagnant or backwards, and they are thought to speak the regional dialect almost exclusively. So these boundaries of enclosure symbolically mark off spaces that are oriented in multiply contingent ways to the future or to the past, and the linguistic and conversational choices people make are used to identify what kinds of spaces they are in. In rural villages you hear the dialect, in modern fantasy spaces like five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls you hear English. Space, time and language are bound together.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 6 asserts the significance of race, represented by the type of a white, English-speaking foreigner, in speech practices and imaginaries of modernity in contemporary China. How did you, often cast in that type by your informants, navigate doing fieldwork?

Eric Henry: Even though most people claimed that Chinese society has no racial divisions, race is an inescapable part of everyday life in China. It is implicit in the ways people endlessly discuss whose skin is dark and whose is light; darkness is associated with the countryside and agricultural labor, lightness with the city and professional employment. Ethnic minorities in China are treated as cultural relics, people who dress in distinctive costumes and manifest quaint traditions. And foreigners, in particular, are recruited into these discourses of modernization because certain racialized others (and here I fit the stereotype of the white, blue-eyed personification of modernity perfectly) represent progress and development. This did grant me a clear privilege in being able to conduct research on language schools. I could saunter in the door, walk right into the headmaster’s office and be welcomed with open arms. The Chinese scholars and linguists I know had to beg, bargain and negotiate just to get access. At the same time, however, and this is something I try to elaborate in the last chapter of my book, I had a role to play. If I’m white, I’m there to teach English, or I’m there to do business, and so many of my interviews and interactions were derailed into discussions of business opportunities or study abroad opportunities. “Let’s cooperate together and open an English school – we can get rich!” I could never be unobtrusive; if I visited a new English class, I always became the center of attention and would be dragged up to lead a pronunciation lesson or answer student questions. At the time, I thought of this fact as a hindrance to my research, but I came to realize that this is a critical element of the discourse of modernity. If crafting modern subjectivities in China is, as I’ve argued, dependent upon acquiring a new repertoire of globalized speech practices, they have to be acquired from somewhere and from someone. In effect, I was being recruited into a kind of fantasy space in which I reflected back to my interlocutors the same desire they had for the signifiers of modernity, such as wealth and mobility, in which case they could consider us co-eval or equivalent social actors. To become modern is therefore to appropriate the signifiers (racialized, linguistic, performative) of those people who already appear to be modern, and that depends upon the source of those signifiers, the foreigner, acting in the way a foreigner is expected to act. By conforming to that role I was sanctioning the activities taking place – whether it was learning a global language, or opening an academic conference or hosting a wedding – as legitimate instantiations of modernizing practice.

Maybe that is a good note to end on. In your first question you identify yourself as a “survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey” and I think that is an apt way to put it. The educational pathways we have created for students and scholars follow very constrained routes, and require a very restricted set of linguistic skills and credentials, naturally favoring certain privileged groups over others. All of this is driving a massive global language teaching industry valued at around $10 billion a year. The racialized privilege I experienced was due to an equivalence between my appearance, my language, and the presumed superiority of Western countries. We have to develop a critical reflexivity towards these naturalized assumptions and never allow them to pass unchallenged. To dismantle such regimes of inequality requires an understanding of how the desires for certain types of linguistic, social, and symbolic capital are produced and sustained on a global scale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s