Is Spelling a Cultural Activity?

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

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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