Portland, OR by Lydia Beyoud

Posted on March 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Image courtesy of unitedpassports.com

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine
Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby
Chicago, IL by Ben Ross
Atlanta, GA by Valerie and David
San Francisco, CA by Sandra Possing
Tokyo, Japan by Polly
Singapore by Edna Zhou
Mexico City, Mexico by Anna Trott

Our next entry brings us back to the Pacific Northwest and Portland, Oregon- one of the most charming cities on the West Coast. Lydia Beyoud, who grew up an itinerant military brat, has spent the last eleven years in the city where she attended high school and college and later met and married her husband. Though she doesn’t consider herself as attached to Portland as some, it’s as close as she’s got to a hometown and a wonderful place to live and explore. Lydia works at Portland State University and moonlights as a writer and translator. Wherever life takes her, she says Portland will always have a special place in her heart.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Portland in the first place? What keeps you there?

Lydia Beyoud: I moved here from Texas with my family in 2000 when I was in high school. We were looking for a change of scenery after spending 5 years in the Texas heat and my parents were changing careers at the time, and Portland seemed like a good place to start anew. Since then I spent a couple of years away during college, but  transferred back to Portland when I met my husband here one summer. We’ve stayed put while I finished my Bachelor’s and he completed law school and the bar exam. However, I recently got into grad school on the east coast, so we’ll soon be moving.

MS: What are the best things about life in Portland?

LB: Being within spitting distance of the slopes-long seasons of skiing and snowboarding, followed by summer sports- and the coast, along with incredible regional diversity and activity (such as the desert, the rivers, the wine country, and green rolling hills). I’ve predominantly lived in downtown Portland and the inner southeast area and mostly walk and bike to get around. Though we have a car, our preferred method of transportation is my husband’s dual-sport motorcycle, which allows us to hit the road for some weekend camping in the woods, for a long drive in the hills or the Willamette Valley vineyards, or off to the coast for an afternoon stroll on our windy, rocky beaches (or, more often, down the road to the grocery store). It’s this proximity to so many different activities and landscapes that makes Portland such a fun spot to be.

It feels like there’s a little bit of everything here, even though it’s a small city. We have a thriving foodie scene, year-round music festivals, sports, and alternative cultures. “Keep Portland Weird” is one of the most common bumper stickers around here, and there’s certainly plenty of that (ex: naked midnight bike groups, sculptural car art, triple-decker bicycles, random acts of artistry, impromptu summer jam sessions in a park by neighborhood musicians). It’s a quirky, surprising city that’s low-key and laid-back.

My favorite part of the city is St. Johns. It has all the charm of a small town within the “big city”, it’s right on the river close to an industrial part of the city, and after years of neglect, it’s blossoming with urban renewal projects, artists, schools, small businesses that in other parts of the country wouldn’t even be around anymore (vintage camera shop, family bakery, “The Man Store” run by two charming, elderly brothers) and where every other person you encounter dubs himself “the unofficial mayor of St. Johns”. Great beers (microbrews!), cafes, parks, people, and the best little Mexican bakery and taqueria in the Portland metro area.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Portland?

LB: The excessive number of gray days with low cloud cover. We like to joke that our state flower is mildew, but the rain is usually counterbalanced by glorious green summers. However, it’s a given that on any day with sunshine, Portlanders will consider it their civic duty to head outside and enjoy the rays.

MS: If you were the mayor of Portland, what would be on your agenda?

LB: While Portland often thinks it’s on the cutting edge of urban planning, I think some of the extensions of the transit system (particularly the Czech-built streetcars, versus the big people-mover MAX lines) have, despite good intentions, been poorly executed in the way they’ve affected car and bicycle traffic around the city. Adding to our already sometimes confusing one-way streets, it now feels like you have to make three rights to hang a left in some parts of town.

MS: What’s something about Portland that can’t be found in a guidebook?

LB: Zoobombing! You might find this in an alternative guidebook to Portland, but you’ll never, ever, see it in Rick Steves’. It’s a whole subculture of the Portland’s beloved bike scene. Bicyclists (and skateboarders, too) take the MAX (mass area transit) train up to the stop on the top of a big hill by the Portland Zoo, and ride down at (often) breakneck speed laying flat on their boards or perform wicked tricks on kids’ bikes as they zoom down the highway and through a tunnel that spits out close to my place. Late on a summer Sunday night (low traffic) you can grab and watch them come zipping through to the cheers and applause of other zoobombers. It looks crazy fun, but I’m partial to the structural integrity of my head, so I just enjoy watching them from the sidelines.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Portland?

LB: Have you seen Portlandia? Though dramatized for comedic effect, it’s pretty on the mark. If you see yourself in any of those characters, you might just like it here.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Portland?

LB: Aggressive types who expect people to act snappy (honking your car horn, for example, will gain you nothing but the ire of the drivers surrounding you, and no spinning of the wheels). Portland moves at its own pace and those who prefer a faster lifestyle would do well to find it elsewhere.

MS: What’s something about Portland that runs contrary to popular perception?

LB: It’s not always as progressive as it thinks it is. It doesn’t represent the diversity of thought and lifestyles in the state. And it’s not the capital of Oregon.

MS: Is Portland suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

LB: There’s certainly a mushrooming group of professional 30-somethings, though I think they’ve been around for quite a while. I think it’s a frustrating city for teenagers and unsettled folks in their 20s, but for children, families, and anyone approaching middle and old age, it’s a great city.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Portland’s future?

LB: Usually. The recession has hit Oregon hard and the dismal news of statewide budget cuts, especially in necessary sectors like education and public workers, is seriously depressing. But I think Portlanders bear a lot of  goodwill towards their city, and will continue to be involved in making it into a thriving and beautiful place in this corner of the U.S.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

LB: I’ve lived in many cities across the country, so there are a few favorites I’d return to and others I’d love to spend a year in someday. In no particular order (though the high proportion of southerly cities might be an indication of my current craving for some sunnier weather!): Austin, Washington D.C., Boston, Miami, New York, Santa Fe, and New Orleans.

MS: Can you sum up Portland in a word, phrase, or sentence?

LB: Welcome to Portland. Act accordingly.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) gmail.com or in the comment section below. Thanks!



Bob Herbert Walks The Plank

Posted on March 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Media. No Comments

The long-time columnist Bob Herbert has resigned his Op-Ed post with the New York Times. I’m basically with Andrew Sullivan:

Yes, he had a role as a liberal voice. But such a boring, familiar voice. There was something about his writing that simply forced you to stop reading, even when his motives were obviously honorable, his compassion deep, and his solutions sincere, if invariably trite

Herbert has kept his column for as long as I’ve read the Times, and I can only recall two or three instances in which I’ve actually read one of his columns all the way through. I appreciate Herbert’s attempt to keep poverty on the national radar, but his columns lacked humor, style, or bite. The Times’ Op-ed page is probably the most valuable real estate for punditry in the world so I don’t think it’ll be too difficult finding someone to replace him.

My choice? The Atlantic’s brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates. Whether he writes about contemporary politics or football, Coates’ talent just leaps off the page (or, um, the screen).…

Another War

Posted on March 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, World Affairs. No Comments

So the U.S. is now engaged in yet another war with a small, despotic, weak power in the greater Middle East. This has become a periodic occurrence, a bellicose Olympics of sorts, in which Americans watch destruction and hellfire thousands of miles away from the comfort of their living rooms.

Because Barack Obama is not George W. Bush, this war has the veneer of multilateral respectability, from the cover of the United Nations to the insistence that the U.S. is allowing the British and French to lead to the pledge not to use American ground forces. Yet at the end of the day, this is an instance of the U.S. and its allies invading a sovereign country in order to overthrow its leader, as Simon Tisdall correctly points out.

I remain baffled what the West expects to accomplish from intervening in the Libyan civil war. Let’s say that the West succeeds in toppling Gaddafi and installing the country’s opposition as the legitimate government in Libya. (Lest you assume that this is a mere formality, read this New York Times article). Do we know how (or whether) the new regime will behave? Do we know whether they’ll have the ability to manage Libya’s complex system of tribal loyalties and run a stable government? Do we know whether they’ll cooperate in repelling terrorism, something that Gaddafi quietly accomplished?

This war seems to be fought solely for the consciences of the West, almost just so we don’t have to read about Gaddafi’s brutality in the newspapers. Very few of the arguments I’ve read in support of the invasion have cited the American national interest, relying mostly on vague pronouncements of our “credibility” and “moral standing”.  If these two goals were legitimate, why haven’t we then invaded Bahrain and Yemen, two states who have violently repressed popular uprisings in recent days?  Perhaps if their leaders had the habit of wearing colorful clothes and making absurd statements the Western appetite for warfare would have grown.

Or if we wait another eight years or so, there will be another opportunity to use our military to intervene in another unnecessary conflict. If you have a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.…

Incentives Matter for Cars

Posted on March 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Urban Life. No Comments

Ryan Avent writes:

The transportation problem can be solved, in part, by better transportation policy. It is a crime that the subways are crammed while drivers use the streets of Manhattan for free, but that’s a policy failure, not a density failure.

Thank you. I’d also like to point out that there’s very little intrinsic love affair with the automobile in the United States. If you provide economic disincentives to drive, people will stop driving. But as it happens automobile transportation is still subsidized in this country while conservatives and libertarians scream at any new initiative to improve public transportation infrastructure.…

NY Times Introduces Digital Subscription Plan

Posted on March 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. No Comments

The Times announced today that by the end of this month, readers who wish to read more than 20 articles a month will have to pay for the privilege. This is interesting news I think for a couple of reasons.

One, as the Times article suggests, readers have grown accustomed to reading the entire newspaper online for free. What will happen when they’re no longer able to do so? One possibility is that they’ll simply go to other papers, like The Washington Post. But the two aren’t perfect substitutes. The Post is great for political coverage, but for international news it doesn’t compete with the Times.

What about other sources? The blogosphere now is as rich as ever before, and you can find great information on just about any topic, for free. But is it a substitute for a daily paper? I don’t think so. Even expert bloggers rely on the newspaper for the factual underpinnings of their work.

A second reason this news is interesting is that it challenges the notion that what we encounter on the Internet won’t be free anymore. I can remember thinking that iTunes would fail because people wouldn’t pay a dollar for a song they could simply download for free. But it didn’t happen that way. People, I think, instinctively prefer paying for a commodity, even if they have little sympathy for the pocket books of rich musicians.

The same is true of the NY Times. I spend 13 dollars a month on a Saturday/Sunday paper subscription. People I’ve spoken to have remarked that a newspaper subscription seems extravagant for a grad student, but to me it’s a bargain.…

Mexico City, Mexico by Anna Trott

Posted on March 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Image courtesy of joemygod.blogspot.com

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine
Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby
Chicago, IL by Ben Ross
Atlanta, GA by Valerie and David
San Francisco, CA by Sandra Possing
Tokyo, Japan by Polly
Singapore by Edna Zhou

For our next entry we head south of the border- to Mexico City, Mexico, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities. Our next ambassador is Anna Trott, a native of Kent, England who has spent the last eleven years living abroad. Following a decade in Nanjing, Kunming, and Guangzhou, China, Anna moved to Mexico City in October 2010. She works as the Sales Manager for Higher Education for Latin America for a company called Study Group, a job that requires her to spend ample time in planes and hotels but allows her to see some great countries.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Mexico City in the first place? What keeps you there?

Anna Trott: Work brought me here, and a burning desire to leave China! After ten years there I had to have a change.

I actually had a choice of Bogota (Colombia) and Mexico for the job at first, but favored Mexico City after having visited and fallen in love. I came here in November 2009 and spent four days… on my second day here, a Sunday, I sat in the sun, drinking good wine and listening to a great Cuban band playing live. It was such a contrast to the running around I was used to doing in China, I knew I wanted to move here… even more so when I realized it was a normal Sunday for a lot of (granted, wealthier) families here! Work-wise it made more sense as well. I work in marketing for an international educational company – we send kids overseas to study at our partner universities and international high schools – and we had the biggest market here in Mexico City.

Work keeps me here for sure – I’ve only been here since October so I couldn’t really bail yet! But it is the vibrancy, the colors, the vitality of the place that I love. And the people – super friendly, relaxed (it really is all about “manana”….)

MS: What are the best things about life in Mexico City?

AT: I think the diversity … you can do whatever you want: live music, museums, bars, restaurants, clubs, a ton of history and beaches just a couple of hours away. It is all really accessible, both in terms of these things being everywhere – for example, I could eat in a different restaurant every night for six months in my area only (and there are about 30 neighborhoods in the city) and still not have tried them all. I could visit a different museum every weekend and keep each Saturday busy for a year. But also in terms of people to visit with – Mexicans are very proud of their nation and it is not arrogance, it is a genuine pleasure when they know someone else is interested, so you just mention to someone you know/just met, that you want to visit somewhere and you have company!

The weather as well – blue blue skies and a dry mild climate … no wonder we have so many restaurants and bars with seating outside: there is nothing better than basking in the afternoon sun with a nice glass of Argentinian wine watching the world go by. It is a question of lifestyle!

MS: What are the worst things about living in Mexico City?

AT: The traffic. There is a saying in Mexico that you know when you leave but not when you arrive: so very true. You know the rush hour time so can kind of prepare for that, but some days the traffic will just be insane for the whole day, for no apparent reason

MS: If you were the mayor of Mexico City, what would be on your agenda?

AT: I am a relative newbie here so am not too qualified to answer this, though I do know the corruption in the police force is pretty awful.

There’s the obvious issue with the drug trade but I have to say the current mayor is doing what he can, and has basically agreed the drugs can pass through here, but no dealing in the city, which has made the place safer than the border towns. You can’t stamp out these things overnight, so I say he has a pretty good strategy…

For both points above, interesting to read this article about a Mexican film being banned here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2011/03/mexican_film&fsrc=nwl

MS: What’s something about Mexico City that can’t be found in a guidebook?

AT: There is this great area in town – very local – where you can go to pick up mariachi bands. They literally stand on the side of the streets and people go along and hire them for parties, or you pay for a few songs there in the square. I wouldn’t go without a local as it is edgy and you need to keep your wits about you; certainly not too many tourists there at all. A very  fun end to an evening!

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Mexico City?

AT: Anyone who wants to live life to the full, is open to meeting new people, and is ready to try good tequila! It is a city with so much life … I would say people without family who can be out all night and day would get the most from this place.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Mexico City?

AT: Someone who is shy and nervous… you need to have your wits about you when you are walking around the city. There is a lot of security and so you have to be used to seeing bodyguards with guns and then police around a fair bit, but otherwise I do think there is something here for everyone so it is hard to say anyone is not suited to it.

Anna in Mexico

MS: What’s something about Mexico City that runs contrary to popular perception?

AT: It is not as unsafe as people think. It is a huge place and sure, there are areas you need to be careful in and wouldn’t walk by yourself, but that is true of any big city. It is true you cannot take cabs off the street, but I would say it is not as bad in the city as popular perception indicates.

It has a lot of green areas – many parks and tree-lined boulevards. The long sweeping “avenidas” are a result of the fact the city used to be a system of canals, so the principal ones were filled in and make up the principal streets through the city. Tree lined and decorated with sculptures by various artists, they really make for a beautiful city.

Not too many people know either that we have pyramids on the edge of the city – a whole ancient Aztec city that is breath-taking in design and sheer scale of the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.

MS: Is Mexico City suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

AT: I think it is great for young adults – around 25 to 40s: people old enough to have the money to be able to go and make the most of all that the city and its surroundings have to offer, and young enough to have the energy to take advantage of it all.  Salsa is tiring!

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Mexico City’s future?

AT: I do – Mexico is gradually stabilizing economically (and DF is one of the core centres) though it is not the power house of Latin America that Brazil is. While the country as a whole is really pretty unstable, and getting worse now (many people liken it to Colombia 10 years ago), I don’t think it will get back into the city.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

AT: Right now, I am very happy being here. I am the kind of person that won’t stay in a place if I don’t like it so it is a tough call for me. But, I guess, if pushed, I’d choose New York, or possibly Sydney

MS: Can you sum up Mexico City in a word, phrase, or sentence?

AT: Fabulous, fun and very diverse.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) gmail.com or in the comment section below. Thanks!

Thoughts on the Japan Tragedy

Posted on March 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. No Comments

Image courtesy of al Jazeera

Needless to say, I’m horrified by the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Walking through my school building today I spoke to several of my Japanese classmates, all of whom thankfully reporting that their families and friends were safe. I could still see that the event had struck them deeply, as well it should. It is difficult as an outsider to see devastation on a large scale; much more so when it is your people who are affected.

The death toll from the disaster is not yet known and will not be finalized for some time, but we can rest assured that it will be significantly lower than in similar disasters such as the Beichen earthquake that struck Sichuan Province, China in 2008. This is not to minimize the significance of the disaster but rather to point out that little things people take for granted- a functioning, clean government and well-regulated building codes- save many lives in a crisis. In fact, comparing how different countries absorb natural disasters is a telling sign of development- much more so than numbers of Starbucks or shiny new airport terminals. I hope if a silver lining emerges from this tragedy it is that governments in developing countries lying atop fault lines redouble their efforts to enforce building regulations, rebuild tottering bridges, and ensure that the disaster response mechanisms are well-prepared.…

Singapore by Edna Zhou

Posted on March 12th, by matt_schiavenza in City Project. No Comments

Image courtesy of eltoma-cyprus.com

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine
Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby
Chicago, IL by Ben Ross
Atlanta, GA by Valerie and David
San Francisco, CA by Sandra Possing
Tokyo, Japan by Polly

We next head to the East Asian city state of Singapore, nestled near the equator near Malaysia. 21 year old Edna Zhou, grew up in York, Pennsylvania but spent her summers in Shanghai and a year in Dalian, China teaching English and studying Chinese. In 2009 she spent four months in Shanghai and worked for Shanghaiist.com and a tech start-up before returning to the US for her senior year of college. Edna graduated in May 2010 and has been in Singapore for the past eight months, the last six of which she has spent working for a supermodel reality TV show. Edna can be reached here.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Singapore in the first place? What keeps you there?

Edna Zhou: Singapore had never been on my radar as a place to visit, but one of my best friends from college (whom I’d partly influenced to come to Asia) was getting relocated from Shanghai to Singapore right around the time of my graduation. He jokingly asked me to move with him since he had a spare room, and I had no real plans post-graduation so I said “Why not?” and bought a one way ticket in July. I found a short term gig with the Youth Olympic Games but didn’t plan on staying more than a couple months. What keeps me here now is the current job I have, the solid social circle I’ve established, my amazing apartment that overlooks Singapore, and the fact that it’s a good base for traveling around Southeast Asia.

MS: What are the best things about life in Singapore?

EZ: I think why most people are kept in Singapore is because it’s easy. It’s Asia-lite, “Disneyland for adults”, so you get the feeling of being abroad and getting international experience while still being able to read and speak English everywhere. Plus, everything just works. Public transport rarely has a hitch, the streets are clean, rules are followed, people don’t push and shove (or if they do, it’s minimal in comparison) and are generally polite. The ‘melting pot’ thing definitely works better here than other countries I’ve seen too; I’ve noticed that Westerners barely get a glance on the streets, as compared to the frenzy they can cause in other Asian countries. You also don’t get the ‘recession depression’ [I just made that up, is that a thing?] that you get elsewhere – there’s so much construction here, everything seems to be on the up and up. And as the Brits like to point out, the constant sunshine helps against that feeling too. And again, being 40 minutes away from Malaysia/Indonesia and cheap flights to all the other Southeast Asian countries is always a bonus. Oh, and the food is cheap and delicious! You can’t go wrong in a country that admits to ‘eating’ being a favorite national pastime.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Singapore?

EZ: Depends on where you’re coming from. As a poor graduate with recent experience in China, I’d say it’s 1. expensive and 2. predictable. I miss the feeling of stepping outside your front door in the morning, knowing that anything can go wrong at any second. Almost everyone can agree it’s expensive though, even the ones with expat packages realize it (though they can obviously care less than the rest of us). Rent is exorbitant, and alcohol just as much ($10 for one pint is considered happy hour). And it does get boring going to the same watering holes over and over. On the flip side though, it gets boring listening to everyone else complain about how boring it is. I’ve had tons of fun here, you just have to work harder to create it yourself (I am now the master of house parties).

MS: If you were the mayor of Singapore, what would be on your agenda?

EZ: Chewing gum distribution and lower alcohol prices. Ha, half serious. I probably haven’t paid as much attention to Singapore politics as I should, being a poli sci grad, but I’d probably encourage people to explore more, be more bold and less complacent. I’ve heard people here can be quite ‘spoiled’  because they’re used to the government taking care of them from cradle to grave. But again, maybe that’s not a terrible thing (‘too satisfied with life’, come on) compared to how other nations in the world are doing. Maybe I’d also open up the country more to free speech…but that would be a long hard road to fight and again, the Singaporeans don’t really seem too bothered about it.

MS: What’s something about Singapore that can’t be found in a guidebook?

EZ: They’re probably in the guidebooks, but the gardens and outdoor areas are really nice around here. I actually haven’t done a lot, so tourists have probably seen more of Singapore than I have, but the Botanical/Orchid Gardens are really great for picnics and afternoons and Fort Canning Park/MacRitchie Reservoir are great for running. Fort Canning also holds a lot of outdoor concerts, Christmas in the Park was lovely there last December, even if we were singing Jingle Bells in 80F weather.

I suppose if I had to give advice I’d say do all the stuff in your guidebook, but in walking form. People don’t realize how small Singapore is! A favorite weekend activity of mine (besides picnicking, and if I’m not hungover) is just to start at the edge of Chinatown, walk up through all three Quays, around Marina Bay/Raffles/City Hall, and beyond, just wandering. That’ll take a few hours of your afternoon at least, plus if you like to wander you discover a lot more chill alleyways and tiny shops and cool finds that way.

Oh, just remembered as well – cheap booze? Chinatown Point, or the bridge at Clarke Quay. I am notorious for always suggesting the bridge because it’s where all the poor expats and students go with beers and cheap liquor and sit and drink. It’s like a huge house party, but outdoors (and it’s amazing that Singapore has no open container laws?!) It is also pretty much a cardinal sin to let someone visit you in Singapore without bringing you duty-free…but maybe that’s just my circle of friends.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Singapore?

EZ: People who want to start in Asia but have an easy transition into it, or people who have done the circuit and want to stay in Asia, but move to a more stable environment to raise a family. People who like wearing button downs every day, and sweating through every shirt you own. People who like to eat…a lot.

The lovely Edna posing in front of the Singapore skyline

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Singapore?

EZ: People who like cheap beer. People who like seasons. People who like not having to shower more than once a day and occasionally looking like a dirty hippie or walking around in gym shorts and a crap t-shirt. People who don’t want to hear, “Wow the metro was so crowded today” when it had all of 20 people in it (and none of them were staring at you).

MS: What’s something about Singapore that runs contrary to popular perception?

EZ: You can chew gum, and you can jaywalk. It’s true that they’re technically illegal, but you won’t get caned or deported for doing them.

MS: Is Singapore suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

EZ: Definitely geared toward, and chock full of, the 30+ crowd. Makes sense, as people are often sent here by their companies, which usually means already-established careers. In my group of friends, the average age is 30/31, so at 21 I’m an absolute baby.

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Singapore’s future?

EZ: Yes. Have you seen the Marina Bay Sands?? (Bragging time: one of my flatmates is an architect who helped design that!) It’s just the beginning, man.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

EZ: Shanghai and all of Ireland remain my loves. If I had to pick a new city, I’ve been hearing a lot of appealing things lately about Chiang Mai, Thailand. London’s on my long term radar though.

MS: Can you sum up Singapore in a word, phrase, or sentence?

EZ: Safe. (financially, physically, mentally, all of it.)

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) gmail.com or in the comment section below. Thanks!

What’s in a Name?

Posted on March 10th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Technology & Society. No Comments

Being a journalist and activist in China is trying at even the best of times, but especially so when choosing to criticize the Communist Party. Michael Anti has made a career out of doing just that, bravely taking the Chinese government to task for its odious censorship of the Internet and other forms of media. Anti, of course, is not a Chinese name- it is the English name of the journalist Zhao Jing- but is more than just a ‘pen’ name, too. In a media environment as sensitive as that in China it is imperative that a writer obtain a degree of separation from his true identity, even if just rhetorically.

This apparently isn’t good enough for Facebook. Citing a breach of its ‘no pseudonym’ policy, the Internet giant abruptly canceled Anti’s account in January.  Gone, immediately, were the thousands of contacts he cultivated over the previous three years. (Full disclosure: I was one of Anti’s “friends” even though I have not met him personally). Since then, Anti has tried to restore his account but to no avail, saying quite sincerely that he “can’t function using his Chinese name”.

I appreciate Facebook’s policy of insisting on legal names, and think that doing so was one of the main reasons it eclipsed MySpace so easily a few years ago. But in a police state like China there is real value in shielding- even partially- one’s true identity. Michael Anti didn’t choose his name out of self-promotional zeal. He did it so that his controversial content could have that much more breathing room and exposure. For people in Anti’s field services like Facebook are essential in the dissemination of content that would otherwise remain buried.

I realize that with 500 million users Facebook may not have enough time to police every single one of their users’ pages, but surely they can separate between people like Anti and others with a less solid case for using a separate identity. For Anti, having his Facebook page canceled is more than a nuisance- it’s a professional setback.

(Hat tip to Evan Osnos at the New Yorker)

Update: Our friends at Gawker have picked up the story. Good- hopefully with a little more attention Facebook will restore Anti’s page.…

Tokyo, Japan by Polly

Posted on March 9th, by matt_schiavenza in City Project. No Comments

Image courtesy of planetperplex.com

For a full explanation of this series, see here.

Other cities:

Austin, TX by Jascha
Los Angeles, CA by Andrew Culver
Shanghai, China by John Pasden
Boston, MA by Ella Chou
Toronto, Canada by Erik Schomann
Washington, DC by Sarah Hassaine
Beijing, China by Jeff Crosby
Chicago, IL by Ben Ross
Atlanta, GA by Valerie and David
San Francisco, CA by Sandra Possing

Back we go to the Far East and our next city exploration: Tokyo, Japan. Ambassador Polly grew up in New York City but went to a very liberal college in the Midwest, majoring in Economics and East Asian Studies. She has lived in both China and Japan and is currently based in Tokyo.

Matt Schiavenza: What brought you to Tokyo in the first place? What keeps you there?

Polly: My boyfriend at the time was offered a promotion to a new position in his company in the Tokyo office. He asked me to come with him, so I did. This was right around the time when Lehman Brothers collasped and the American housing crisis was hurting the US economy. I was working in the financial services industry at this time, so it made perfect sense for me to relocate abroad, while the financial industry and the economy stabilized itself.

MS: What are the best things about life in Tokyo?

P: I think hands down anyone in this city will tell you the transportation infrastructure is the best thing about living here. It is extensive and very convenient for getting around the city and outside areas and owning a car isn’t necessary. I can go about three hours west of downtown Tokyo on a train and be in the middle of nowhere, without having to make many transfers. Then hop on the next train back into the city in less than 15 minutes.

I would also say that for the most part Japanese people are very polite and helpful. There is a certain civility in their culture that I sometimes find is lacking the States. They try to be considerate on trains, by not speaking loudly around others, or they are very conscientous about treating their customers in the retail and services industries well. So, it could be a little matter of how they present the shopping bag to you after you purchase something in a store, or give you detailed directions to another store or area that might have what you are looking for that makes your day.

MS: What are the worst things about living in Tokyo?

P: I would say that the sheer amount of people wherever you go, the workaholic lifestlye and the lack of green space.

Tokyo is Japan’s capital city and its population grows every year. Most of Japan’s second tier cities, such as Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagoya, are declining in population due to a lack of adequate jobs for all their young college graduates as well as their skewed elderly to young ratio. Most companies have already or are in the process of setting up or consolidating their branches/offices in Tokyo, which signals a massive migration of young people every year to the capital. This then strains transport infrastructure to a large degree.

Japan’s workaholic culture is also a huge turn-off to living here. People frequently work until past 8pm Monday to Friday, depending on their company, and sometimes even the weekends. Even if they are not busy, they still have to stay at work and look busy because others are doing the same thing. It would be shameful to be the first one to leave or to leave before your boss, so many people wait hours to leave for home, even if they finished up their work hours earlier. There is no work-life balance here. Work always comes first and then your personal life is next. I miss getting out of work at 6pm and having my evenings free. People are constantly working here and usually do not take more than 5 vacation days a year off. They also generally do not believe in sick days, so they come to work sick to show their co-workers how dedicated they are.

The lack of greenery also is a bit of a downside. Everywhere you look there are concrete and large tower buildings, a result of  the high value of land in the city. There are some large parks that were established long ago scattered around the city but it would be nice to have a local small park where you could enjoy sitting under a tree and taking in a bit of nature. If you do see a small park in the city, it usually has concrete instead of grass.

MS: If you were the mayor of Tokyo, what would be on your agenda?

P: Help build more affordable nurseries for working mothers, so that the birth rate can increase. Right now, women have to choose between being financially independent by having a full-time job and being a stay at home mom, due to the drastic shortages of nurseries and lack of paternal support to help raise their children. Without addressing this important issue, in 50 years, Tokyo and the rest of Japan will be a completely different place than what it is now.

MS: What’s something about Tokyo that can’t be found in a guidebook?

P: These last few winters have been extremely cold in comparison to the normal winter temperatures for Tokyo. So, in response to this, an older man converted a minivan in order to sell hot sweet potatoes from the van on the street, which is not really done in Japan, since it’s still taboo to eat or drink on the street. So every Tuesday and Thursday, all kinds of people line up a block from Ebisu station to buy his piping hot sweet potatoes to eat them on the corner or take them home. They are really awesome! His potatoes make winter tolerable here.

MS: What kind of person would be best suited for Tokyo?

P: I definitely think Tokyo is only for people who can deal with and enjoy the hustle and bustle of a big city. There are way too many people wherever you go, so not being sensitive to having small amounts of  personal space is also a requirement.

MS: What kind of person would be worst suited for Tokyo?

P:  I think it would be extremely difficult to live here if you are older and have trouble adjusting quickly to crowds.

MS: What’s something about Tokyo that runs contrary to popular perception?

P: Tokyo is well known for its pristine tidiness,  when compared to major cities such as New York City or London. But in reality, there are many areas such as Roppongi  that are definitely gritty and smelly most of the time despite being a major tourist attraction. It’s a major turn-off but I guess every city has its drawbacks.

MS: Is Tokyo suitable for all age groups, or would it be better for some age groups rather than others?

P: See above- living here as an older person would be difficult due to having to deal with so many large crowds.

Image by Polly

MS: Do you feel optimistic about Tokyo’s future?

P: I am bit neutral about it. Tokyo is always changing. It has strict building codes which means it tears down buildings quite frequently that are out of date with its earthquake guidelines. So, in that respect, it is always redefining itself as a metropolitan city. It would be nice if they were to put more investment in making buildings eco-friendly and adding more greenery around the city. That would make it a bit better to live here.

MS: If you could choose, which other city would you like to live in?

P: I really liked San Francisco, despite its foggy weather. The people were very laid-back and there was always a lot going on in terms of events and social gatherings.

MS: Can you sum up Tokyo in a word, phrase, or sentence?

P: Bustling organized chaos.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms should be directed to matthew.schiavenza (at) gmail.com or in the comment section below. Thanks!