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.
James Maguire, author of American Bee, Maguire noted that rote learning really isn’t enough to get you to the finals of the bee because the kids have to be able to spell words they’ve never even seen before by understanding etymologies. Another theory is that growing up in a bilingual home may make it easier for kids to learn word roots from different languages.
At the end of the day, Maguire found that most of the kids are surprisingly well-rounded, but they just “really love to study—call that an unusual trait.” So chances are, being raised in homes where academics are stressed definitely helps your chances at the national spelling bee—but to win, you have to want to be there.
So why spelling bees? Well, some people trace the phenomenon back to Balu Natarajan, who became the first South Asian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985. At that time, Indian Americans weren’t really represented in American culture—except in the form of playing taxi drivers on TV.
Maguire thinks there was an element of “immigrant pride” involved with seeing an Indian American win such a “quintessentially American event.” That sounds likely, considering that the next South Asian American champion won just a few years later in 1988—and a trend was born.
Over 20 years later, the second South Asian Spelling Bee is drawing contestants from all over the country, with preliminary rounds in eight different cities. The finals will be held on Aug. 15 in New Jersey, and the event is garnering a fair amount of press.
The root of many ethnicity-specific events—which were all the rage in the 1980s—was to provide opportunity to people who weren’t being represented in the mainstream. Clearly, South Asians aren’t underrepresented at the national spelling bee anymore. The 2009 MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee Web site states that the purpose of the competition is to “give all South Asian students the opportunity to test their skills within their core peer group.” In other words, it’s a chance to practice for the national bee and size up the competition.
There’s also undoubtedly a social component. The spellers get to meet other kids who are a lot like them, and the parents make friends with people they’re likely to see again at the national bee. That’s fine, but the South Asian Spelling Bee comes across as 1) a great marketing opportunity for MetLife and 2) an attempt to culturally corner the spelling bee market.
Part of why Akeelah and the Bee is so endearing is that we love rooting for the underdog—the unlikely hero who manages to overcome adversity. Whenever Indian Americans would win the event, there’d inevitably be a human interest story on the news about immigrant dreams coming true. All schmaltz aside, there’s something fascinating about watching kids from all over the country, kids with diverse backgrounds and experiences, getting together to duke it out intellectually. And they’re duking it out on a level playing field.
The South Asian Spelling Bee runs the risk of taking away that level playing field and sending the message, “You’re on our turf, now.”
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American community issues and cultural trends.