The Indian conquest of a US national contest | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 10, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 10, 2017

The Indian conquest of a US national contest

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The Spelling Bee is a cherished American institution. For those unfamiliar enough to wonder what kind of bee would that be, it's a nationwide spelling contest, where tens of millions of kids from all over the US compete. The cut-off age for contestants is the 8th grade.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee found new national visibility after the sports cable TV channel ESPN decided to broadcast it live in 1994. 

Something else has also happened along the way. 

Indian American contestants, who are less than 1 percent of the US population, now own the contest lock, stock and barrel.

Consider the numbers. Over 11 million spellers contested the competition at the local level in 2017. Of the 291 who reached the national level, 75 were Indian Americans. All top 10 contestants were Indian Americans. 

Finally Ananya Vinay of Fresno, Calif., nailed the contest, spelling “marocain” (a ribbed crepe fabric used in women's clothing) to take home USD 40,000 and other prizes.

Fully 18 out of the last 22 winners (some years include ties, with two winners) including all winners in the last 10 years — are Indian American. 

That's a mind-boggling feat. But how much is it really worth? We'll return to this point presently.

The Indian American dominance in the spelling bee has drawn criticism about “real” Americans not winning the contest any longer. The racial overtones have a disconcertingly familiar ring for anybody familiar with the complaints after British Bangladeshi Nadiya Hussain's heartwarming win of the 2015 BBC Great British bake-off.

When Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar of Corning, New York, jointly won the 2014 Spelling Bee, the teenagers “were greeted with a barrage of racist comments on Facebook and Twitter,” reports The Washington Post. “We need an American to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians,” went one post.

To its credit, organisers stood firm. Paige Kimble, the longtime director of the contest said that “we are aware of Twitter posts that are not nice, that indicate that we have a long way to go as a country in embracing all of our immigrant population.”

“We look forward to the day when these children are called American first,” Kimble said. “And we think they do, too.”

Be that as it may, the big question remains: Why do Indian Americans do so extraordinarily well?

The real story is complicated and nuanced. It's my own gut feeling that some communities just pick up on some niche and go with it. Are the Chinese particularly good at running restaurants and laundries? Why do Indians from Gujarat have such a particular stranglehold on American motel ownership?

In addition to the typical Indian American parent's obsession with their children's education, the North South Foundation has also played a key role. Its founder Ratnam Chitturi, a mechanical engineer who immigrated to the US from India, had lofty goals to help underprivileged students in India. In 1993, the NSF also started to focus on US-based Indian kids, starting the spelling bee. It had a slow beginning. By the late '90s, about 400 contestants participated, with scores of them getting into the national spelling bee. 

Then things began to change, as spelling bee veteran Vauhini Vara writes in “Bee-Brained: Inside the competitive Indian-American spelling community,” published in the May 2017 issue of Harper's Magazine.

“In 2003, an NSF kid, Sai Gunturi, won Scripps for the first time. In 2008, another NSF kid won. An NSF kid won the next year, the year after that, and the year after that. Nihar [Janga] and Jairam [Hathwar's] joint victory (in 2016) was the latest in a nine-year run of NSF-veteran Scripps champions.”

One important factor is definitely the Asian obsession with rote-learning, and spelling bee competitions are particularly well suited for this. Who but an Indian American parent would spend hours, days, weeks, drilling into her/ his child hundreds of thousands of obscure English words, their word roots and what not?

But to what end?

I certainly have doubts about whether the benefits derived from a gruelling spelling contest are commensurate with the enormous hard work.

I suppose it's nice to know the meaning of some of the words thrown at finalists in this year's spelling bee like “marram” (a Scandinavian-derived word for a kind of beach grass), “ehretia” (a genus of flowering plants in the borage family) or “struldbrug” (coined by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, it means a class of imaginary persons who can never die but are declared dead in law at the age of 80). However it is quite unclear to me how rote learning of these obscure words brings any added academic benefit.

There are other competitions like the Siemens Science Competition, Intel Science Talent Search, Mathcounts, and US Presidential, Rhodes, Truman, Churchill, and Marshall Scholarships, which have a far more significant impact on future success.

Indian Americans do disproportionately well there too, but nothing approaching their dominance in the spelling bee. One reason could well be that other parents who are not Indian American, but equally obsessed with the success of their kids, have decided to guide their kids towards competitions that have a greater bearing on their children's success.

And that is reflected in a BBC analysis offered by Sanjoy Chakravorty, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“In academic competitions, especially those focused on math or science, Indian American youngsters do very well . . . but at five to 20 times the rate of their population size.

“But in other fields like music and athletics, Indian Americans either barely hold their own or are non-existent at the top level.”

For me the substantive value of the spelling bee remains dubious. It reminds me of the old joke about IQ tests: The only thing a high score on an IQ test proves is a propensity to score high on an IQ test.

The writer is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.

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