Learning East Asian Ways of Life in London

Author: Joanna Byrne

Lana Ko teaching East Asian Ways of Life

When Notre Dame students apply to spend a semester in London, they are often anticipating the traditional London experience. They can’t wait to take photos with red post boxes and black cabs. They are excited to look out for members of the Royal Family near Buckingham Palace, or to visit King’s Cross Station where they can pose with Harry Potter’s trolley on platform 9¾. What the students don’t always expect is the wealth of other cultures teeming through Britain's buzzing metropolis.  


London Global Gateway’s Professor Lana Ko is challenging her students to discover more about these cultures through her course East Asian Ways of Life: Philosophy and Practice, first taught in spring 2022. Her philosophy class is the first course at the London Global Gateway to be focused on Asia, demonstrating East Asia’s rich influence on life in the capital, and allowing her students an insight into what it means to be a global citizen. 

“It’s no longer a statement to say that we are all global citizens,” says Ko. “Coming here to London, a huge metropolitan city, is the perfect opportunity to feel that we all have global citizenship.”

It’s hard to miss the influence of Asian culture on the capital, especially from the vantage point of Fischer Hall, the academic building for the London Global Gateway. Walk two minutes from Fischer Hall and you can make out the thousands of red lanterns strung across the streets of London’s Chinatown. Another few minutes’ walk takes you to Chinatown’s Gate, designed with ornate features in a traditional Qing Dynasty style. Being surrounded by this type of food, architecture and artwork not only informs students' understanding of East Asian ways of life, it can also spark further questions. Ko describes how visiting areas like these can be a launch pad into learning more about other cultures.

“When students visit Chinatown, they realize it’s not just Chinese food, there’s also Korean food, Japanese food, and more. They can try this food and see if it is the same or different, then they can start to question how it is different and why,” says Ko. “If students go on to ask more questions from there, I can start to explain more about East Asian culture.”

Ko teaching

Chinatown is certainly not the only place students can discover more about East Asian culture and its history in the UK. The Korean Culture Center is a few minutes’ walk from the London Global Gateway, and hosts events and film festivals celebrating Korean culture. Ko also encourages her students to visit the British Museum, which houses a fantastic collection of objects from around the world, with rooms dedicated to Korea, China and Japan. 

Ko explains that experiencing a country through tasting its food, hearing the language spoken in the streets, or even watching a film, often sparks the students’ interest and leads to them wanting to learn more.  

“It is so easy to experience other countries’ cultures in London, so why not learn more about their history and understand more about their background?” asks Ko. “My course is an opportunity for them to explore more than what they first see in daily life—I’m challenging them to go a bit deeper!”

Ko, the first scholar specializing in Asian Studies to join the London faculty, certainly does go deeper in her classes. She spends time exploring core questions and challenges that have been raised in the history of East Asian philosophy—What is the Way (dao)? Is it possible to become a sage or transcendent? How can we cultivate our body and mind to manifest the Way? Can the practice of arts re/present the Way?

“We learn how each tradition and thinker—Confucians, Daoists and Buddhists—conducted their life by trying to answer these questions,” says Ko. 

Along the way, students learn not only from Ko, but also from a variety of guest speakers, including speakers from SOAS University of London, and even martial arts professionals who talk about the philosophies that they practice.  

Kelly Gormon ‘24, an applied and computational mathematics and statistics major, has certainly taken up the challenge to learn more about East Asian ways of life through Ko’s course. 

“This course has taught me so much about various types of philosophy that I have never been exposed to before,” says Gorman. “I have learned about the diversity of individuals and ways of thinking within the city and beyond.”

For Gorman, London acted as an extension of the classroom, allowing her to learn well beyond the boundaries of Fischer Hall and equipping her for the world that awaits once she graduates from Notre Dame.

The University’s engagement with Asia over the years has led to strong partnerships with universities in Asia, research collaboration grants for faculty, scholarship programs for degree-seeking and visiting students, and the establishment of Gateways and Centers in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Mumbai.

“We are inspired by opportunities to create global education and scholarship initiatives that link together the University’s Global Gateways and Centers,” says Jonathan Noble, senior assistant provost for Internationalization. “Dr. Ko’s course represents the ways in which Notre Dame International’s gateways provide valuable opportunities for students to explore diverse intellectual traditions and practices within the gateway’s cosmopolitan communities.” 

“Taking this course in London allows me to apply what I learn to the diverse environment that we are lucky enough to be living in,” reflects Gorman. “I am excited to apply what I have learned to my life back in the US.” 

The type of experiential learning exemplified by Ko’s course is what Notre Dame seeks to offer students through their time studying abroad. In learning about other cultures, students better understand the world around them and the importance of becoming a global citizen. There is no better place to understand the connectedness of the world than in London. 

The course has been developed through support by the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies as well as Notre Dame International’s London Global Gateway and the University of Notre Dame Department of Philosophy.

Originally published by Joanna Byrne at asia.nd.edu on May 23, 2022.