The London Effect as We Know It


The London-based UK Communications Study Abroad Program has been in operation since summer 2013. As a postmodern metropolis, London enfolds the entire world and all ages in it. The city as a classroom is simply inexhaustible. But the program takes students far beyond the city proper, and the door to cities in continental Europe is wide open during and after the program.


Cliché has it that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. The divergent ways of uttering “the same language” bespeak quite different mental postures. For one thing, they take the lift to go up to the first floor. The black cabs run on the “wrong” side of the street, so do all other vehicles. Going to the UK feels like switching from a PC to a Mac. One can no longer tell the difference between habit and hindrance. Well, that’s precisely where learning starts.


What does it mean to be in England now that July is there? Program participants spend an entire month, and ever after, to ponder over the puzzle. One misses the point entirely if the answer is less than philosophical-spiritual. An unsuspected answer is right in front of one’s eyes when one gets on and off the Tube day in and day out: “Mind the gap.”


Indeed, the program creates time outside of time or, better still, liminal space-time. Awakened people can make the familiar unfamiliar, thereby voyaging in situ, making a physical trip superfluous. Inforgs dive into alternate reality to savor the unsavory sensation of exploring erehwon. The program lies somewhere in between. It is an expedient means to trigger off satori in the mind that is ripe.


It is probably not a stretch, after all, to associate the English way with the Zen way. Claire Parnet’s curious observation, “English elegance against Italian overdressedness,” is to be experientially verified or falsified. Zen Sundays at the Buddhist Society are just another opportunity to find out. The lotus posture is a seat of wisdom. Its value resides in itself, not in another picture in the cloud. One is supposed to sit just to sit.


In a way, the program is a social experiment (as a participant in 2018 observed during a discussion), and a psychic one, too. Immersion in an outlandish milieu motivates ongoing introspection and soul searching. The raindrops at night speak one’s mind. The daily journal documents the pilgrim’s progress. What would be a potential revelation? If the program feels intense, shouldn’t life in general feel the same way?


For the literary-minded, going on the trip feels like traveling in time. Is time an empty container that holds everything from Xu Zhimo’s River Cam, the fair lady of George Bernard Shaw, the eternal heath of Thomas Hardy, the theater of Shakespeare, and the Canterbury of Chaucer, all the way back to the immemorial Stonehenge? Or is the mind an infinitely vast void that affords the virtual coexistence of all of the above and much more? As such, the trip is absolutely and entirely an inner trip.


July is filled with one sensation after another in London. Wimbledon, Pride in London Parade, the World Cup, BBC Proms are only a few among a long list of encounters to look forward to. Les Misérables is simply sublimating. The Beatles walk is always opportunistic and rushed. The Dewey line, “At twilight, dusk is a delightful quality of the whole world,” only reveals its full meaning when one crosses the Millennium Bridge toward evening. A bare-footed walk on pebbly Brighton beach is an assured struggle, making for an impressive Sunday.


The course work is entirely tailored to the London experience. Each reading resonates with some aspect of the city, allowing program participants to see it in a new light. There are plenty of opportunities to do critical research, or reflect on the erstwhile empire’s imperial history. Seeing mummies at the British Museum, for example, one cannot help wondering, aren’t they supposed to be in Egypt?


The trip is anything but emotionally flat. Like a khora, the city works one over on all sides. Over time, one becomes at one with the rhythms, tonality, and atmosphere of the city, making it hard to leave and unacceptable to not go back. Those were the days, as the song has it. Want to join us next year? I’ve got the time if you’ve got the inclination, as Big Ben says to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


Peter Zhang

Program Director

[email protected]

Page last modified October 2, 2019