Is Spelling a Cultural Activity?

Well, it is now. The final round of the South Asian Spelling Bee takes place this weekend.

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The first time I heard about the South Asian Spelling Bee, the conversation sounded something like a vaudeville routine gone wrong:

“Did you hear about the South Asian Spelling Bee?”

“You mean, did I hear that South Asians keep winning the national spelling bee …”

“No, I mean did you hear about the spelling bee that’s just for South Asians.”

“What’s the punch line?”

“There isn’t one. It’s a real spelling bee.”

This exchange got me thinking again about a piece called “Indian Americans: The New Model Minority,” which ran in Forbes magazine earlier this year without a hint of irony. There’s one line from the story that stands out in my mind as a real gem: “Most Americans know only one thing about Indians—they are really good at spelling bees.”

While I take issue with that statement and the model minority label, there’s definitely a trend here. For starters, close to 11 percent of the participants at the last Scripps National Spelling Bee—the queen bee—were of South Asian descent, and 6 out of the 10 most recent champions are Indian-American. And now there’s a national spelling bee specifically for South Asians.

So what gives? I’ve stumbled on plenty of snarky answers like, “If you can spell a name like Shivashankar, you’re already a step closer to being able to spell anything.” Another personal favorite is “Indian-American parents are obsessed with academics—they force their kids to do it.” But as far as I’m concerned, these aren’t real answers.

An interesting theory came from Sepia Mutiny, which suggests that spelling bees might be popular amongst the Indian-American community because they mimic the Indian educational system’s emphasis on rote learning and memorization. But even that answer isn’t satisfying. The kids who enter the bee are primarily growing up in the United States with an entirely different educational system.

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