Indian American Sukanya Roy Wins National Spelling Bee

June 9, 2011


As I’ve mentioned before in a previous post or two, I’m basically your anti-sports fan. Not that I have anything against sports. It’s just that it’s so gosh darn hard to remember all the different rules and how many points a certain goal gets. Seeing as I often can’t figure out which team is wearing what color jersey until the game is nearly over, networks like ESPN do not interest me in the least.

Until last Thursday.

We were celebrating a couple of June birthdays at a local pizzeria, the kind of dining establishment where TVs are posted on the walls so you don’t miss a crucial NBA playoff game or CNN headline as you dig your face, trough-like, into a three-pound slice of Chicago-style deep dish pizza. The TV nearest our table was set to ESPN, which happened to be broadcasting the 84th Scripps National Spelling Bee. Hours later, 14-year-old Sukanya Roy was crowned National Spelling Bee Champion after correctly spelling ‘cymotrichous.’

Based on the little I know about ESPN, I can only assume that scrupulous spelling is now a national sport. Call me a huge nerd, but this is something I can totally get behind! Not only are Asian Americans regular contestants and winners of the bee -- Miss Roy is the ninth Indian American to win in the last 13 years -- but this is the exact kind of non-contact sport that my near-sighted and non-muscular 5’1” frame was built to do. The fact that the competition is played out on ESPN makes me feel thrilled that someone like me could be featured as a sports champion. I mean, is this how little boys feel when they watch NFL players on TV?

While the Asian American winners have all been Indian American, Asian American contestants as a whole claim a wide range of ethnic heritages, including Chinese American Claire Zuo, Korean American Byoul "Star" Han and Vietnamese American Tam T. Nguyen. However, like anything in the US where minorities are disproportionately represented, questions and theories were thrown out as to why Asian Americans seem to excel in spelling bees. Even before the Age of the Tiger Mom, the success of Asian Americans was often rehashed as a battle between calculated parenting and cultural threat: A number of these contestants speak languages other than English, so does being bilingual give you an edge in spelling bees? Is it the result of overzealous immigrant parents seeking to raise automatons? Or are Asians in general just inherently better at things like music, math and spelling? After all, Tatyana Kim is of an Asian ethnic background, but her family is from Uzbekistan and she is bilingual in Russian and English.

While the novelty of Asian Americans dominating spelling competitions seems to have worn off, the debate continues. Last year, when Anamika Veeramani became the third consecutive Indian American to take the Scripps title, she specifically attributed her success to a good study ethic due to her Asian American heritage. So far, Roy hasn’t discussed the factors or practices that helped her win, other than what sounds like good old-fashioned hard work. (The 8th grader from Pennsylvania went through the entire dictionary -- twice. Seriously. I don’t even own a dictionary.)

So what do you think? Does being a second-generation American give you an advantage in winning spelling bees? Why or why not? And what other ‘sports’ would you like to see featured on major television networks? I’m personally pulling for a National Luggage Packing Bee. Task: pack for a month-long trip through three different climates for a range of events, including casual, formal and athletic. Give me 10 minutes and I will give you a standard-sized carry-on filled with all the travel necessities and present it like an impeccable, wrinkle-free, TSA-approved jigsaw puzzle on wheels. Bam. Cash money, please.