When Laura Ling lands in a destination, it is often to help tell a complicated story, usually a story about the place or its people that few know. It’s been through her work as an award-winning journalist that she’s had an opportunity to see the best in people.
“Working as a journalist, I’ve traveled all around the world to dozens of countries,” says Ling, a former Current TV correspondent and “E! Investigates” reporter. “And I’ve covered some heavier topics over the years. But I think that in almost every occasion, every instance, there have been those glimmers of compassion and kindness that shine through.”
Ling has covered conflict in the West Bank of Jerusalem and the Mexican drug war, and she even became the story in 2009 when she was imprisoned in North Korea for illegally crossing over its border from the People’s Republic of China while investigating a story on human trafficking.
I experience kindness every time I travel. I'm just blown away by how gracious people are.
In those difficult moments, she still experienced moments of kindness.
As host of a Discovery series, “The Power of Kindness,” sponsored by Marriott International’s Golden Rule campaign, Ling explores incredible acts of compassion and delves into the science behind how helping others makes us feel.
Marriott TRAVELER sat down with Ling to talk about how these human interactions, no matter how small or large, can change perceptions of people and a place.
[Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity]
I try to at least try to learn how to say hello, how are you, thank you, or whatever it is, to people that I encounter because I think that they appreciate that.
When you think about the golden rule and treating others the way you’d want to be treated, how has this played a role in your travels as a working journalist?
I experience kindness … every time I travel … I’m just blown away by how gracious [people] are. People always welcoming me into their homes, their villages … So there are always those moments and people who are exceedingly kind. But I’ve also just been moved by the people themselves, who are devoting their lives to helping other people.
When kindness comes into play, when there’s that mutual respect, a lot of those things, a lot of those preconceived notions, start to fade away. And so kindness has sort of been a guiding principle of mine when I travel.
And when people from so many different cultures and backgrounds and situations [come together], when we can experience that — that mutual respect and kindness — it has been such a beautiful thing, and it has changed my perspective on the world.
I would not be the person I am today without having traveled the world and meeting people who are so different from the person that I am. And to be able to understand the similarities that we have in common, but also to appreciate each other’s differences, that’s the beauty of traveling, and that’s why I feel so enriched in my life.
Can you share a personal example of how an act of kindness changed your perspective of a place?
I can talk about North Korea because that’s the one [experience] that has been … so prominent in my life … I was held captive in North Korea, and I was there for nearly five months.
And it was terrifying. But then there were those moments of kindness that I also experienced. And they mainly came in the form of kind acts from my guards, my female guards. And I think initially, when I was in that situation, we were both very apprehensive of each other. I think they looked at me as the enemy. But you know, the barriers started to come down, and we started to be with each other more.
One guard had gone home to visit her family, and when she returned, I asked if she had a nice time visiting them, and she said, “I did — but I felt badly that I could see my family, and you’ve been separated from yours for so long.”
So little human gestures like that, I think, help to connect us to each other, to people from very different cultures, almost opposite cultures, but allowed us to sort of build bridges with each other. And I do think that — even though it was such a frightening time — there were beautiful moments that came out of my relationship with my guards.
When you step into a new culture, how do you try to connect with the people there to try to gain a deeper understanding of the place?
I try to at least try to learn how to say hello, how are you, thank you, or whatever it is, to people that I encounter because I think that they appreciate that. They appreciate that I’m taking those steps to immerse myself in their culture and respect that culture. And I find that language can kind of connect people, as well.
I love Tanzania. It's one of my favorite places in the world. I just recommended that somebody travel there because the people are so warm, and the culture is just so rich.
Sometimes people want to learn English, and so then I’ll teach them some English words. So language can be a connector. I love food. I’m a huge foodie, and I try everything and anything. And so, when I travel, one of the first things I want to do is [learn] what is the special food or the special dish, and I will try that.
I mean, I’ve been to some funky places and have eaten some funky things, but I have really learned to appreciate different cultures through food.
Tell me about some of those funky food experiences!
Okay, well, some of the funkier things — if we want to go funky — like, you know, fried worms in Myanmar … I love street food.
When I’m traveling in Asia, the night markets in Taiwan are my number one destination when I go to that country to get the fried squid, or the salted preserved plums, and things that we don’t get here in the U.S., or as frequently, but are real treats and delicacies somewhere else.
Where have you been recently that really left an impression on you?
I was recently in Tanzania, and I had never been to Sub-Saharan Africa. I’d been to Northern Africa, but not Sub-Saharan Africa. And I was doing a story about energy poverty and the lack of energy resources that are leaving tens of millions of people without power and electricity and how that impacts their lives.
What I found was some of the most amazing, warm people who are doing whatever it takes to get on with their lives, despite this adversity. And I also didn’t realize that Africa has the world’s fastest growing middle class. And it’s really starting to boom. And if they’re just given the opportunity and the resources that they deserve, they could just be unbelievable.
And so that was new news to me … and it really is inspiring and hopeful to see. I love Tanzania. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I just recommended that somebody travel there … because the people are so warm, and the culture is just so rich.
You’ve traveled so extensively. Are there places that you haven’t been that you’re really excited to visit?
So, I’ve been to a lot of places, but I would love to go to Peru. I’ve never been to Peru to see Machu Picchu. I would love to travel more in Europe. You know, I have never seen Paris. And I think that growing up, I said, “Paris will always be there,” and so I found myself in, you know, in Myanmar, and in Colombia, and in Haiti, and in Morocco and Egypt, but never Paris. Ah, maybe one day I’ll get to Paris.
Watch “The Power of Kindness”
This article is presented by Courtyard, Fairfield, Four Points and SpringHill Suites. We live by the Golden Rule, treating others the way we like to be treated. It’s always been our guiding principle.