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The Flying Bird Teahouse in Insadong

February 23, 2010

Okay– so Insadong. You know about Insadong, right? The part of the city that emphasizes tradition, where you can get kitschy Korean souvenirs, and where you take your non-Korean parents when they come to visit. It’s kind of amazing that I enjoy the place so much, given that it is, um, sort of a, well, let me put this coarsely: a ching chong fantasyland. In more delicate terms, it plays off a lot of of the stereotypical perceptions Westerners have about Asian culture: the winged tiled roofs, people in period garb making glutenous rice treats, lots of silk fans and bags and green-sheened pottery. Sure, it’s Korea. Sure it’s what a lot of what people think about when they think of Asia. But if you think that’s all this country has to offer, well then you’re a f’n idiot.

There is a kickass mall.

Anyway, I seem to have gone off track. What I mean to say is, that even with that slightly manufactured aura of orientalism for tourists, it is still a vibrant part of town, lots of people, lots of cool boutiques with handmade crafts, art galleries and the like.

I had the plum tea. Delicious. Those rice-honey things are pretty good too.

And there are tea houses. I have elaborated on the train tea house in a previous post, but this time, my friends and I decided to go to this “Old Time Tea Shop” that promised freely flying tropical birds. Up the creaky stairs, it was as advertised. It was prettily decorated, though a little unnerving– there were a lot of antiques everywhere, and though it was nearly empty, the fact that it was separated into little private rooms made it feel a little cramped. There were birdies flying everywhere.

Looks nice, right? It was, I’m not saying it wasn’t– but the whole thing, made me slightly uncomfortable. The ceramic vases, the landscape paintings– and the music, especially that music– the kind of twangy, supposedly soothing instrumentals most often heard in kung fu movies (which I know are Chinese, I am making a point here), just screams CCF–“this is all for you, foreigner! Look these mysterious Oriental things! Feel the mysticism!”– which I suppose I have no right to complain about it– by all intents and purposes, I am a tourist who is the one consuming, this what I am supposed to expect, and who’s to say that these things shouldn’t be up for sale… but it doesn’t make me feel good. For all I know, everything was a completely earnest depiction of traditional culture, but there’s also something sad in the way that even “authentic” things seem false and cliche nowadays.

Paragraph break! Look at some birdies!

I feel a multitude of ways about things like this, a lot of them contradictory. And I guess that’s a point which has been raised over and over and over again, and that even writing about it is cliche. If you really want to know, maybe it’s not how all this stuff is presented– but the way people (tourists) seem to react to it. Nothing irks me quite as much as foreigners who have a hard-on for cultural authenticity.  This is another rant entirely.

On a lighter note, dude, the bird cafe probably had the unsafest bathroom I have ever seen. Three out of three people in my party nearly slipped, hit their head on the cabinet, and landed in this gigantic stone fish bowl.

The koi is a sculpture, but the goldfish are real. Poor goldfish. It’s like living in a tiny one room apartment with a huge Olmec head in the center of it.

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