"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."