The latest in our series of neighbor profiles, about a “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey” who discovered he had a lot in common with the people of China, and made a career of it.
by Carolyn Jacobson
My neighbor, Scott Seligman, moved into the Parker House in 2006. With his big personality, radiating warmth and interest in others, Scott quickly became a presence in the building. He does most of his work from home (he retired from full-time employment in 2008 and spends much of his time writing about China and the Chinese) and he is one of Parker House’s dog owners, so he’s on the street a lot. The big question I had been wanting to ask Scott is this: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey get to be so involved with China?
When he graduated from Princeton, where he majored in American history, Scott decided to take some time off before starting graduate school. He had never taken any Asian history courses, but took his chances and applied to Princeton-in-Asia, which has been placing recent graduates in teaching positions in Asia for over a century.Scott was sent to Taiwan, and while there, he made a discovery: “How similar a lot of Chinese beliefs were to my Jewish values. The Chinese emphasis on family, on education, and on respect for elders really resonated with me,” says Scott. “It wasn’t hard to strike up friendships, and some of the folks I met there in the 1970s have remained lifelong friends. We even have reunions from time to time.”
In 1979, the U.S and China established full diplomatic relations, and suddenly there were many jobs for Mandarin speakers. This was his chance to get to China after completing graduate school. The U.S-China Business Council hired him to escort Chinese delegations around the United States, and soon he was off to Beijing – his first assignment there.
It was just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, which was “a disaster for China almost any way you look at it,” Scott recalls. “People were very cautious about befriending foreigners, and they had good reason to be. We lived in hotels apart from local Chinese, and the government discouraged fraternization. But we managed.”
“I became quite close to two democracy activists about my age who were relatively fearless when it came to bucking the authorities,” Scott says, “but still, we used caution. I remember waiting until cover of darkness to visit them in their apartment to minimize the likelihood of a neighbor spotting me and reporting them to the local police for getting too cozy with a foreigner, which in those days could bring a lot of trouble. I wound up sponsoring one when she emigrated to the United States several years later.”
Although the Business Council was great experience, trade and investment were not Scott’s passion. Chinese culture and communications were, and these led him to the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, where he worked in Washington and Chicago. Pretty soon, he found himself back in Beijing.“China was a tabula rasa as far as knowledge of American companies and brands were concerned, and one of our jobs was to create images for companies and their products that are household names elsewhere in the world,” Scott recalls. “But the best part for me was working in a hybrid organization neither wholly American nor entirely Chinese. I learned a lot from the local staff about how things got done in China, about Chinese protocol and about the importance of preserving “face” in pretty much all situations. And they adjusted to working in a Western-managed company in which decisions were made for business instead of political reasons, people were promoted based on merit and staff was encouraged to grow and to take risks. It was a far cry from the way state-owned enterprises were managed in China at the time, and a great learning experience. I still hear from my former staff. In the rapidly expanding China market, many of them have enjoyed success they could never have imagined possible back then.”
“By the mid-1990s, the Jewish expatriate population in China had grown to a critical mass and a group of us got together to establish a proper Jewish community,” Scott recalls. “We began regular Friday night services, and, without a rabbi, filled in our knowledge gaps from books, the Internet and recordings.
“We also set up a Jewish book club and geared our reading and discussions to issues we saw facing the Chinese, and the foreigners resident in China. Many of my Chinese friends were interested in Jewish culture and Jewish history. They knew little about Jews apart from some stubborn stereotypes, and I found myself constantly explaining customs and religious differences while trying to correct some deep-seated misimpressions.”
Scott retired from full-time work in 2008 and decided to pursue writing – his real passion – concentrating chiefly on China and Chinese culture. Last year he teamed up with a friend and published The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, a compendium of recipes and stories of the urban youth sent down to the countryside by Mao in the 1960s and 1970s. It became an Amazon best-seller after NPR did a segment about it on “Weekend Edition.” Since then, he has been focusing on Chinese-American history, and currently is working on a biography of Wong Chin Foo – a 19th century activist credited with coining the term “Chinese-American” – which will be published in the spring by Hong Kong University Press. He says he “has been never happier in (his) work, or made less money.”
Scott’s most recent book, Three Tough Chinamen, focuses on the Moy Brothers, late 19th century immigrants to America, who crossed lines and broke barriers. His book event at the Tenley Library on October 3rd drew a very attentive and enthusiastic crowd.
One my favorite pieces written by Scott is “The Night New York’s Chinese Went Out for Jews,” an article on an improbable coming together of New York’s Chinese and Jewish communities in 1903. The Jewish Daily Forward ran a version of it, which you can read here.
On his web site, Seligmanonline.com, and various book jackets, Scott is described as “a writer, historian, a retired corporate executive and a career “China hand.” He is fluent in Mandarin and conversant in Cantonese; he has lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. He holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and is also the author of Chinese Business Etiquette and co-author of Now You’re Talking Mandarin Chinese. In addition, he has published articles in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the China Business Review and has created several websites on historical and genealogical topics. Last month, Howard Magazine ran his article on the first Chinese students to study at Howard University.