What My Parents Talk About When They Talk About Psy

04/17/2013 06:03 pm 18:03:36 | Updated Jun 17, 2013
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My parents have never expressed much interest in my job, let alone American pop culture, which I write about daily for a living. They're South Korean immigrants, in their 50s, and generally banned television for my brother and me while we were growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore (imagine my parents' dismay when we would later both end up in entertainment fields). It's not that they don't like culture; they simply dismiss its current fads. My father, an avid guitar player, retains an arrogance about the heyday of rock ("HATE IT" he once replied when I emailed him the music of Fleet Foxes) that makes it difficult to relate. My mother almost exclusively listens to Deutsche Grammophon compilations in the car and complains of a headache anytime I turn the radio on.

One person, however, has brought us together in a way I previously thought unimaginable.

When my mother came to visit me in New York in February, I pointed out to her the concrete plaza at 30 Rockefeller Center. "Oh," she said, gripping my arm. "Is that where SHY performed?"

Who the heck was SHY? But I knew immediately that my mother, a master of malapropisms, meant PSY, the South Korean performer whose viral horse-dance video for "Gangnam Style" and rising star my parents had been closely monitoring.

A few months prior, at home for Thanksgiving, I commented on how the rapper had -- some perceived, rudely -- admonished Ellen DeGeneres on her show for not properly introducing him. ("Can I introduce myself? Not just dancing," he told the typically buoyant host and a bewildered-looking Britney Spears.) "RIGHT!" my parents crowed, nodding their heads at the dinner table. "He is in complete control of himself -- he is making himself known as a proud Korean, even if his English isn't the best." My father then boasted with the nerdiness of an adolescent boy that he had already seen the Internet video of Psy's new dance, though he failed to produce the website when I later quizzed him about it.

During a recent trip to Australia, I curiously watched as a large group of Chinese students took photographs of themselves doing the "Gangnam Style" dance at Sydney University. I eventually realized that the task was part of some sort of humiliating first-year orientation scavenger hunt ("I don't want to be photographed doing 'Gangnam Style,'" one of them muttered to the other, looking at the ground. "It's so... embarrassing"), but the idea stuck. I took a photo of myself jumping, lasso-hand in the air, in front of Rose Bay Beach and fired it off to my parents. The response was as quick as it was delighted: "Love this! Live show in order back home," they wrote, approvingly.

And when I asked them, just this week, what they thought of the 35-year-old's new single, "Gentleman," and its trying-too-hard music video, my mother responded: "I wouldn't let my grandkids watch it!" which, at the end of the day, is probably sage advice.

In the end, these conversations make for no more than idle chatter among workmates, the kind of mindless water cooler talk that is forgotten as quickly as coffee cools. But I have never had these kind of conversations with my parents before. Suddenly they've gone from speaking a language I'm hardly fluent in to expressing teenage-esque excitement about a pop star whose success has proved universal. It feels, in a word, like bonding.