Robert Laing: Always where the action is

By Michael J. Carter

Robert Laing was in Egypt when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, in Sri Lanka during the nation’s civil war, in Fiji when not one, but two military coups occurred. And what does the career diplomat say about his job?

“It’s a wonderful and rewarding career for those who are up to it.”

Laing, a class of ’69 alumnus from the University of Washington seemed the least likely person to travel. He failed a military physical which made him ineligible for the draft that would have put him in Vietnam and felt content making himself a comfortable nest in an academia-based life. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in advertising before earning a master’s, and later a PhD in communications.

“I thought I’d stay in academia indefinitely,” said Laing, who after a stint at KCTS public television as a director of research, found himself as an assistant professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Then came a dramatic career change.

Laing did a summer internship with the United States Information Service (USIA), which later put him on course to take the Foreign Service exam. Much to his surprise he passed and was soon to work abroad.

USIA, a now defunct public agency that operated from 1953 to 1999, was devoted to international diplomacy and exchange. After its abolishment its functions were put under the auspices of the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs.

Laing’s first tour: Cairo, Egypt.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he confessed. After debating with his wife whether or not they should go, Laing took the plunge and soon was studying Arabic all day in a very small class which became a “mind-twisting” experience.

“Learning a nonwestern language, you have to stop thinking in English and let your mind go,” he said. Equally different was the culture which proved to be a daily revelation to Laing who had traveled little in his life. During his tour he worked on U.S.-Egypt exchange programs.

In 1981, the year when Sadat was assassinated during his troubled presidency Laing’s son was born. When asked if raising kids abroad is difficult he replied, “Raising kids is difficult! I don’t think there are many kids who like to be uprooted and moved to a strange country.”

But that’s exactly what happened. Although Laing hoped to get assigned to another Arabic country it was not meant to be. Next stop: Sri Lanka, a small island nation off the southern tip of India.

Laing arrived in 1984 in the midst of a conflict between the government and a separatist militant organization known as the Tamil Tigers.

“A civil war was going on, but it was a wonderful place to raise a family,” he said, and indeed his daughter was born during his tour there. Laing and his wife increasingly relied on schools that catered to international students while abroad, especially since they would be bouncing to Fiji, New Zealand, back to Washington, D.C., and finally to China.

Despite the fact that globe trotting led to arguments with his children it influenced their interests later in life.

“Now that they’re grown I think they both look back on it fondly,” Laing said. “My son wound up studying Chinese as well as my daughter.”

Indeed China would become a cornerstone in his life as he spent more than a decade working there as a diplomat. Laing who was 45 years old and forgetting Arabic found himself back at the institute’s language school studying Mandarin intensively.

“You don’t get better at learning language as you grow older. The Foreign Service knows what they’re doing. It’s brutal!”

In 1994 he began his tour in the U.S. embassy in Beijing working as a press officer and spokesman where he was permitted to speak on the record during a time of increased awareness of human rights abuses and high-level visits from the America.

The foreign press core started to build up rapidly, a big boom of it began in the mid-’90s with CNN and 24-hour news, Laing explained. “People would want news updates every hour. We probably had more congressional delegations than anywhere else in the world,” he recalled, including a visit from then-vice president Al Gore.

Laing was also in Hong Kong in 1997 and witnessed the British cession to China.

“I don’t think anything comes close to China,” Laing said. “We enjoyed being there, we spoke the language. I’ve never seen a place try to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.”

Laing returned States’ side in 2006 as in currently working as a diplomat in residence for the State Department at Arizona State University doing lectures, speaking at career fairs and talking to students.

“If we don’t do this we don’t get diversity. Diplomats ought to look like the country. We’re not there yet. We need good people to represent the country.”

Although Laing is 61 years old, he is uncertain about retirement as he’s trying to decide whether or not he’s going to serve another tour. However, in the end he wants to retire back in Seattle where it all began.

To find out more about working for the State Department, log on to www.careers.state.gov.