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Talking across the divide

Updated: 2013-11-15 12:51
By Loraine Tulleken ( China Daily Africa)

Cape town communications expert tells the story behind his unique business approach

At 43, Stuart Rothgiesser, founder of communications business Roth Communications, says he is an egg - white outside and yellow inside.

At his core is a powerful affinity with the East. His love of Chinese literature, art and philosophy regularly spills into his conversations and one senses that, although Cape Town is now his home, he often dreams in Mandarin.

A Sinologist, linguist, businessman and anthropologist, Rothgiesser speaks passionately of his commitment to creating a better world by serving as a bridge between East and West. To do this he draws on more than 20 years' experience in education, storytelling, writing and communications.

His unique and somewhat altruistic approach - "Communications solutions through storytelling" - is working. Increasingly, those investing in China and Chinese businesses looking to expand into the US, Canada and Africa are seeking him out on matters ranging from business etiquette, to cultural differences, branding, research, networking and training.

Notably, Roth Communications boasts an impressive list of international clients in the private, non-profit and educational spheres, including Fortune 500 companies and some of the world's most respected NGOs.

A fascinating combination of Eastern philosophy, anthropological wisdom and his Western upbringing, Rothgiesser is also proudly Jewish. He is determined to make a better world, and his client list, which includes the World Wildlife Fund, Transparency International and a Chinese sustainable energy firm, is indicative of the company he keeps.

A master's degree in social anthropology from the University of Cape Town, an honors degree in Chinese language and literature from McGill University in Canada, and a South African diploma in higher education add to the mix.

Talking across the divide

As a boy in Cape Town, he attended one of the oldest schools in the country before his parents relocated to San Diego in the US in 1985. Even then he was more aware of the East than most boys his age because both his grandfather and father had worked in Japan.

After high school he applied to attend McGill, and a requirement for his degree was that he should study a language other than English. The French class was full and his girlfriend was Chinese-American, so the obvious choice was Mandarin. He also elected to study Chinese literature and philosophy.

"We were very fortunate to have highly regarded teachers, ones who were both passionate about sharing their culture and who had studied in the West," Rothgiesser recalls. "I came to love the logic behind the characters and the way literature and philosophy nourished the new world."

He eventually majored in East Asian studies, which involved four years' study of modern Mandarin and two years of traditional Chinese, including the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poets and philosophers such as Confucius and Mencius. There was also a year of translation, and his honors thesis focused on Chuang Tzu, a founding figure of Taoism.

After graduating in 1994, Rothgiesser was eager to visit the Chinese mainland but, short of money, first went to Taiwan to teach English. En route he stopped in Vancouver.

"I worked as a tourist host at the airport, where I met a wonderful woman from Kaohsiung who invited me to stay with her when I reached Taiwan. Not realizing that she was just being typically polite, I took her seriously and eventually stayed 18 months - not all at her home."

Soon after his arriving in Taiwan, he was shocked into reality.

"I'd expected all Chinese to be philosophers, but quickly discovered that they were hardcore capitalists, not interested in culture, language or heritage. Of course, one must bear in mind that at the time, Taiwan, along with Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, was part of an economic grouping called the Asian Tigers. It was an era of exceptionally high growth rates and rapid industrialization."

He found Taiwan exciting but battled to cope with the water, air and noise pollution.

During this time, he enjoyed teaching so much that he decided to pursue it as a career and enrolled to study higher education in Cape Town in 1995. But first Rothgiesser realized his dream of visiting the Chinese mainland, traveling by boat from Hong Kong to Ningbo in Zhejiang province, and spending two months as a backpacker.

"I did the touristy stuff in Beijing but decided to step out of my comfort zone and leave the city."

On one of several train journeys, he met an anthropologist who was heading for a rural music festival.

"I met men wearing horns packed with medicine, who poured me brandy and sang songs."

Before his trip to the mainland, he had met a Taiwanese woman he describes as his "soul mate and best friend". A clothing designer, she was keen to improve her English and traveled back to South Africa with him.

They married in 1998 and eventually moved to Vancouver, which had a big Chinese community and where Rothgiesser continued teaching and began his writing career.

The marriage did not last. Stuart does not elaborate, but one suspects that it was during the divorce that he decided his life's calling was to be a bridge between the East and the West.

It was also a decision partly driven by his involvement with a Chinese solar company that wanted his help to expand in South Africa.

Adding to Rothgiesser's complexity is his belief in the power of storytelling, which he first experienced fully at the 2008 AfrikaBurn Festival. There he heard the Khoisan, an ethnic group in southern Africa, tell their stories. This inspired him and a designer friend to launch a storytelling business.

Rothgiesser is amazed by the great infrastructure development and other positive changes in China over the past 15 years.

"There are not as many rural people hanging around the railway stations looking for work and there is a general sense of well-being and greater confidence. And what is really impressive among the fast emerging middle class is their humility. I really respect the strong Chinese work ethic."

Would he live in China again?

"It would have to be for a specific reason. Something in me has changed. I'm tired of being 'an other' in foreign lands but I love my ongoing interaction across the business communities.

"Chinese multinational companies need help in developing a brand identity as they expand into the West. Of course, the same applies to Westerners eyeing opportunities in the East, and I want to be involved in those two way conversations."

For China Daily

 Talking across the divide

Rothgiesser says he is determined to make a better world. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/15/2013 page28)

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