Sunday, August 1, 2021

Eric S. Henry's "The Future Conditional"

Eric S. Henry is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Saint Mary's University, Halifax. He has been published in City & Society, Language in Society, Anthropological Quarterly, and Anthropologica.

Henry applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Future Conditional: Building an English-Speaking Society in Northeast China, and reported the following:
If a picture is worth a thousand words, and two pictures are worth two thousand words, then The Page 99 Test works well for this book. Page 99 has two pictures on it along with the caption texts. The first picture shows the exterior of a typical private English language school catering to children in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang where I conducted sixteen months of fieldwork. The second picture shows a nearby cluster of other private language schools and training centers, including a Korean language school. The pictures highlight just a few of the eleven language schools I found as part of a walking survey of four residential city blocks near downtown Shenyang.

Part of the point I was making in this section of the book was just how ubiquitous these schools are throughout the city, where almost all urban middle-class youth take extra English classes on evenings and weekends. And that, in turn, highlights the critical role the English language plays today in China in cultivating new forms of identity and citizenship. Students need to do well on English language tests to get into good universities, so there is a certain instrumentality to the English fever which has captivated so much attention in China. My argument throughout the book, however, is that this is not enough to explain why English has become so integrated into systems of education and employment. Rather, the key is in understanding what it means to claim the ability to speak English within a rapidly modernizing society.

The ways that people narrated their lives and futures made it clear that English is a means of social distinction. China has experienced rapid economic and social change since market reforms and consumer capitalism surged in the 1990s. But people in Shenyang often felt left out of these transformations; despite its status as a regional capital, Shenyang’s economy was built on heavy industry, leading to a rustbelt economy today and the perception that the city is being left behind. In this context, knowing English is a way for people to position themselves as a new kind of global citizen, one who is not trapped in Shenyang but has the power to transcend limitations of time and space, to propel oneself into a future of unlimited potential. The schools in these pictures, therefore, like the thousands of others found throughout the city, tap into new anxieties about social class, mobility, and status that are driving the foreign language industry in Shenyang and throughout Asia more generally.
Learn more about The Future Conditional at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue