Expat Intellectuals 

Navigating the streets of Chiang Mai reminds me of hiking in the way that I always have to watch the ground to make sure I have proper footing. The streets here are narrow and uneven, and slope up and down at random intervals. The amount of cheap taxis makes sense once you have walked around for twenty minutes in the scorching mid-day sun. 

Billy and I don’t mind the walking, however. Walking gives us more time to appreciate our surroundings and perhaps find a good place to eat, which, in Chiang Mai, isn’t so hard to do. Strolling around, one sees many foreigners and expats; passing through the street food stalls, the conversation about NPR from a young hip looking couple rings as clear as a bell. Seeing all these westerners made us wonder whether Chiang Mai is the modern equivalent of Paris of 1920’s. 

Billy. If this city was ever like Paris in the 1920’s it was probably a couple of years ago. When I see it now it seems like we’re witnessing the tail-end of what was once a brief haven for intellectual expats. Maybe we’re not even seeing the tail-end. It could be over for all I know. 

Elliott. How long did the whole Paris in the 1920’s thing last though? Probably a couple of years, right? I agree that if any intellectual expat movement occurred here it’s long gone, but it was probably so brief that no one got to experience it properly. A flash in the pan. 

At this point a shipping truck backs out in front of us with one of its back doors wide open, swinging with every turn and bump the truck makes. We decide against notifying the driver, the language barrier being what it is.

Elliott. Plus, what intellectuals and writers can we point to now as leading the way? If this city were to be like Paris in the 1920’s, it would need recognizable names to move and work here. I don’t know who that would be these days. 

Billy. Who would even be able to tell you the name of a serious contemporary writer or artist? Someone who doesn’t create sellable schlock but actually makes original and poignant work that speaks about our current situation in the world. 

Elliott. I can’t think of anybody.

Billy. The Internet has made the phenomenon of Paris in the 1920’s kind of obsolete. We don’t need to congregate in a city anymore to stay current on culture. The conversations can happen online. It’s not the same as face-to-face of course, but that hasn’t mattered so far. 

Elliott. Armchair intellectuals, however, remain a problem for any serious discussion on the Internet. 

Billy. But like anything the wheat gets separated from the chaff. Intelligent conversations are had on the Internet all the time. This doesn’t mean shit posting isn’t still prevalent, but to say that’s all there is on the Internet isn’t fair. 

Elliott. I imagine everything is like a Fibonacci spiral. At first, the distance between events seems so long. Remember how long a day felt when you were in kindergarten? But then as you get older things start speeding up. Suddenly a day feels as long as a blink, and years pass at the cruel speed of a bullet. The distance between events becomes unrelenting; everything just becomes faster and faster until it ends. As with our little lives, so with the life of history. The events of Paris in the 1920’s took longer to go from conception to decay than they did here in Chiang Mai because history has moved further along the spiral since then. Advancements come so quickly, almost exponentially, that now we don’t need a city to be a cultural capital because we’ve made the culture capital a concept that anyone can access. The only thing I wonder is, given the speed of events, where are we on the spiral of history? 

Billy. What? 

Billy is then hit in the back by the swinging backdoor of the truck we had seen earlier. He said it didn’t hurt, and the truck driver immediately pulled over to slam the door, without apologizing or noticing. 


4 thoughts on “Expat Intellectuals 

  1. And so you prove there are intellectual conversations on line – or at least there is intellectual writing if one can scope it out. I kind of feel like I was hit by a truck after this! Am I the wheat or the chaff?


  2. I’m just going to say I love George Saunders for American writers, Kazuo Ishiguro for British/Japanese. Just off the top of my head.


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