The 2013 Spelling Bee is Over: How Indian-Americans Continue to Dominate

The 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee ended last night and the winner was 13-year old Arvind Mahankali, an Indian-American of Bayside Hills, NY.  The winning word, described as German, but as any self-respecting Jewish person would know is Yiddish, was "knaidel."  It means dumpling and is usually found in chicken soup.  But, that's not really the point.  The point is that I am amazed that Indian-American kids have dominated this competition for the past six straight years and 10 of the past 14. How do they do it?

I figured that it has to do with education and the long-standing and well known belief held by first-generation Americans that in order to succeed in this country, you have to work and you have to be educated.  According to Sharmila Shen, a former English professor at Harvard University, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal,

"The first generation immigrant parent brings with her/him a set of memories about how education works and what is to be valued. For Indians that is a memory of endless class tests doled out on a regular basis to evaluate our ability to retrieve information - spellings of words, names of world capitals, cash crops of states, length of rivers, height of mountains, and a plethora of minutiae charmingly labeled as General Knowledge."

So while my initial impulse regarding the Indian-Americans' spelling dominance seems legitimate, there has to be more to it than stressing education and memorizing.  I am a first-generation American, at least one-half of me is, as my mother was born in Germany and came here with her parents when she was a child.  And while my parents both made education the number one priority for me as a child and while memorizing things was part of the educational strata when I was growing up, I could never spell like these kids can.

According to the online magazine Slate, Indian-Americans use the spelling bee as an opportunity to assimilate and have gone so far as to create their own minor league to train kids to get to the "show."  This Frontier League equivalent is know as the North South Foundation (NSF).  Another theme with immigrants is their tendency to concentrate in certain or common professions or jobs where they benefit from those who have lived in this country longer and who are willing to sacrifice and offer help. This was certainly true for my mother whose parents could not have gotten out of Germany if they didn't have someone already living in Chicago who vouched for them and then took them into his home while they settled.  The NSF, for Indian-Americans, appears to be an extension of this kind of immigrant self-help, particularly for families that want to have success in the Spelling Bee.

According to Slate, the NSF circuit consists of 75 chapters run by close to 1,000 volunteers. The competitions began 20 years ago and serve as a real training ground for Indian-American kids.  There are separate divisions for math, science, vocabulary, geography, essay writing, and public speaking.  The NSF also raises money for college scholarships for underprivileged students in India.

Originally conceived as a way for young people to gain access to Indian-American communities and educational resources, "in the last decade North South Foundation has transformed from an SAT prep course into a training ground for [the spelling bee]," according to Slate.

So even if you're a first-generation American and your parents are workaholics who hounded you about your homework and piano lessons, maybe you were lucky like me and you still got a chance to play baseball, go to summer camp, and just fool around.  But, if you have adopted your parents' style and sense of what is important, do not feel bad that your kids are not on ESPN correctly spelling “ptyalagogue,” a word that means “something that makes you salivate."  If that's your goal, you'd better talk to an Indian-American and see if you can get an invitation to the minor leagues of spelling.

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