Azns Spell Good

June 6, 2005

"Striving in America, and in the Spelling Bee"
By Joseph Berger
The New York Times, Sunday, June 5, 2005

For many American contestants, the most uncommon words at last week's national spelling bee were not appoggiatura and onychophagy, but the names of the top four finishers: Anurag Kashyap, Aliya Deri, Samir Patel and Rajiv Tarigopula. All were of Indian ancestry.

In recent years, descendants of Indian immigrants - less than 1 percent of the population - have dominated this contest, snatching first place in five of the past seven years, and making up more than 30 of the 273 contestants this year.

Behind those statistics lies a beguiling story, not just of immigrant pluck, but of a craze that seems to have swept through the Indian-American community.

Excellence in a number of fields has always had a cultural tinge - consider the prevalence of Dominicans in baseball, Jews in violin playing, Kenyans in long-distance running. In 1985, when a 13-year-old son of Indian immigrants, Balu Natarajan, beat out his competitors by spelling "milieu," it had an electrifying impact on his countrymen, much as Juan Marichal's conquest of baseball had for Dominicans. Balu not only became an overnight Indian sensation, one whose name resonates 20 years later, but other Indian-Americans have tried to emulate his feat.

Certainly, immigrant strivers have always done astonishingly well in national academic contests, not to mention in school in general. In some years, more than a quarter of the 40 winners in the Intel Science Talent Search, known originally as the Westinghouse awards, have been immigrants or their children.

Interviews with those winners, many who are the children of seamstresses or small-time shopkeepers, reveal that to bring the glow of accomplishment into their parents' spare lives, they will sacrifice television viewing and socializing to work on agonizingly slow and complicated experiments.

But Indians brought to spelling mastery some particular advantages, said Madhulika S. Khandelwal, an Indian immigrant who directs the Asian American Center at Queens College. Their parents or grandparents were usually educated, often as scientists or engineers; their parents generally spoke English and appreciated the springboard powers of education.

Unlike many American children who are schooled in sometimes amorphous whole-language approaches to reading and writing, Indians are comfortable with the rote-learning methods of their homeland, the kind needed to master lists of obscure words that easily stump spell-checker programs. They do not regard champion spellers as nerds.

By 1993, the North South Foundation, based outside of Chicago and devoted to making sure Indians here do as well in English as in math, set up a parallel universe of spelling bees. Now 60 chapters around the country hold such contests, according to its founder, Ratnam Chitturi.

They become a minor-league training ground for the major league 80-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was started by The Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to promote "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."

The enthusiasm has spread. There are now chat rooms and blogs where Indians discuss spelling. Stories about the contests are featured prominently in community newspapers.

"When you see a kid spelling correctly, there was the excitement that he was representing all of us," said Arun Venugopal, a reporter for the newspaper India Abroad who has written about the spelling bees.

Indian families throw themselves in fevered fashion behind their youngsters, drilling them on esoteric words and etymologies, Greek and Latin roots, as well as from spelling lists provided on the Scripps Web site. In doing so, they are as single-minded as other American parents, who have been known to help their fledgling gymnasts, tennis players and singers.

The 2003 documentary "Spellbound," about the 1999 national spelling bee, offered its own example of pushy kin. The father of one Indian contestant, Neil, mentions that a relative back home in India has hired a thousand people to chant prayers during the bee and promised to provide meals for 5,000 if Neil should win.

Mr. Natarajan, the 1985 winner and now a 33-year-old doctor of sports medicine, described the contest as a "a bridge between that which is Indian and that which is American," and it may be that the example of Neil's father is a bridge too far.

But overall, Mr. Natarajan said, the Indian record on spelling bees "gives the community quite a bit of confidence that we can do well here, much like other ethnicities pursuing the American dream."




Ah, I'm replying from a different URL and finally able to post a response. to questioner- my post asserted that there is no genetic predisposition toward particular kinds of brain structures, instead proposing that it is the society and the schooling that sets the framework for certain kinds of understanding. This has nothing to do with biological superiority or inferiority- it has more to do with the way a society structures ideas and how that structure affects thought patterns and information intake from top to bottom (ie high level metaphysics down to basic building blocks like letter patterns in words). As to the geographic origins of the bees, I think that is covered in the original article- make anything a competition and people will take interest for the sake of the competition regardless of how boring the activity itself might be.
so you agree that it is 'nurture' and not 'nature' that is the driver.does it also follow from your 'structure' point, that a predisposition towards thinking in 'unit operations' makes it more difficult to arrive at more holistic philosophies that can be applied across broader platforms of a society?
Yup, no genetic predisposition. Mind you, this also means that biological non-Asians are not necessarily any less valid in claiming Buddhism (or anything else involving incense burning and loose clothing) than biological Asians. I don't believe there is a duality between understanding discrete units and infinite connectedness.
well, i haven't thought about the infinite cnnectivity of it all, but i agree with you so we are in sync. i am often torn between these arguments of 'controlling one's culture' and accusations of 'poser' against anyone deemed 'inauthentic'. we live on a small planet and it is getting smaller all the time. this is especially true in North America where you can get anything from anywhere, at least two of 'em and probably drive-thru. so at what point does it all become part of the mosaic which we all have a right to look at and absorb?
Oh yeah, I love the "Black Widow", I can't believe how tiny she is (for a competitive eater)! this comment has nothing to do with the spelling bee thing. Other than to reinforce AZN competitiveness.
What is it with Asian women being "the black widow?" I thought pool player Jeanette Lee already had that name.
As mentioned in the article, could it also have something to do with the structure of learning and consequently the structure of the mind that goes into learning spelling? Learning to spell seems more analagous to learning how to do basic math than it does to writing, ie the units (numbers or words) are contained in themselves and don't have to relate to other units, nor do are they used to create new meaning. Is it coincidence that much of lower-level computer programming is being outsource to India?
To Seng - I doubt it. If you keep that up someone will be authoring eugenics pamphlets on the biological superiority of good spellers. Inner city black kids play chess and basketball, Indians 'spell', white kids play hockey, Chinese play ping pong and so on and so on...What we need are THINKING contests. but first we need teachers...Not to dismiss or diss (is that spelled correctly?) spelling, but how do the spellers do on understanding the meaning of the words? and using them? and the thoughts they represent?Remember this..."...the major league 80-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was started by The Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to promote "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."So are Kentucky-ians (spelling?) geographically predestined to enjoy spelling or was that a different Louisville? Big up to the spellers, but it has no larger 'ethno-biologic-socio' meaning.