FAQ: What’s up with South Asians and spelling bees, and what the heck is a “bee” anyway?

© Paul Maguire - Fotolia.comSyamantak Payra spelled his way to the top last week at the 5th annual MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee, winning the championship with the word “dghaisa.”

Now, you’re probably thinking two things. First, what in the world is a “dghaisa”? Well, apparently it’s a Maltese boat similar to a gondola. Yeah, I didn’t know either. Second, you’re probably wondering why South Asian Americans seem to have taken such a shining to spelling bees (the last five winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee are all of South Asian descent, and now the community even has its own spelling bee circuit). As a South Asian American who happens to love spelling, I thought I’d take a stab at this one.

In my years of pondering this topic, I’ve read a number of interesting theories and been asked some pretty hilarious questions on why the South Asian American community has fallen head over heels for spelling bees. Here’s my response to the FAQs:

Are spelling bees big in India? What the heck is a bee anyway?
Despite what some people might think, no, spelling bees aren’t really a thing in India. In fact, spelling bees are very much an American phenomenon. According to the Scripps National Spelling Bee website, the first recorded usage of the phrase “spelling bee” was in the U.S. in 1875, but the etymology of the word is a bit of a mystery. Most sources suggest the term “bee”  for a communal gathering is a reference to the insect (being busy or social like a bee), but this is just a theory.

Is there something about Indian culture that makes people go crazy for spelling?
Um, no. I love spelling, but I can’t speak for a billion people. I never entered a major spelling bee and my non-South Asian best friend always trounced me at the school bee.

Yes, rote memorization is emphasized in the Indian education system, but that’s a total oversimplification of both the education system and spelling. In my opinion, good spelling isn’t actually rote memorization. Nobody can memorize every word in the language, especially since so many words we use aren’t actually English. You have to learn how to recognize the root of a word and the rules that come into play as a result (that’s why being bilingual can provide an advantage). Second, the kids competing in this bee might have South Asian parents, but they grow up in America. And when they’re standing in front of a microphone trying to spell “logorrhea,” they’re on their own.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of the “but Indians make their kids study so hard” argument for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here because that’s an essay. If you’re interested, you can read more about why I have a beef with the model minority stereotype.

You still haven’t answered my question. Why spelling bees?
Okay, okay. Here goes. James Maguire, author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, offered up the simplest yet most convincing reason in his 2006 interview that aired on the PBS NewsHour:

“Indian-Americans are very, very strong at the bee. And, of course, an Indian-American boy won in 1985, and I think it inspired a lot of immigrant pride. I think recent Indian immigrants said to themselves, ‘Well, if one of our own can win this quintessentially American contest, then we really want to be, you know, interested in this.’ So Indian-Americans put a lot of emphasis on it.”

In other words, South Asian Americans saw somebody that looked like them win the spelling bee and thought, “Hey, I can do that!” Mind you, 1985 was before South Asians had risen to national prominence in the U.S. It was just two years before the Dotbusters committed a spree of hate crimes against South Asians in Jersey City, and Indians were often the butt of jokes in TV and movies. I can’t emphasize enough how empowering it must’ve been to see a fellow South Asian American excel at something — anything — on the national stage.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to South Asian Americans and spelling bees either. In Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, there’s actually an entire section of the book called “If she can do it, why can’t I?” Coyle answers the question of why so many Russian women were dominating tennis all of a sudden, or why a slew of South Korean women golfers were joining the LPGA tour. The reason is that talent hotbeds developed when a single star rose to prominence and prompted others to say, “If she can do it, why can’t I?” To us, it looks like a sudden, strange anomaly. In actuality, it’s a slow and steady climb.

So there you have it. The more South Asian American kids win the National Spelling Bee, the more other South Asian American kids become interested in trying to win it. Over time, the South Asian Spelling Bee circuit  has become the hotbed to nurture and grow talent. But it all started in 1985 with Balu Natarajan, a little luck, and the word “milieu.”

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2 thoughts on “FAQ: What’s up with South Asians and spelling bees, and what the heck is a “bee” anyway?

  1. It’s funny how the benevolent/neutral aspects of tribalism intersect with a preexisting majoritarian culture. I think a lot about what will happen if, in say 20 years, the U.S. truly stagnates and you start seeing sizable communities of Americans in China (or possibly a far wealthier India), people of a lower class stratum than the usual college-educated, professional “expat” folks with the means to return home at will. Will there be ghettoized “Americatowns”? What unique cultural oddities, akin to spellings bees in the U.S., will those people attempt to make their own as part of acculturation?

    And what are the chances that Indians-are-weirdly-good-at-spelling becomes its own stereotype? Certainly it’s too minor or “harmless” to be the pretext for violence or discrimination, but could such a thing act as a counterweight to pride? Just speculating.

    • Great points & questions! You’re actually right on the money about expats returning home at will and creating their own little “American” communities — at least it’s happening in India: http://www.littleindia.com/nri/5067-return-to-india.html.

      As for the spelling bee stereotype, you’re right. The volume of Indian-Americans winning is a statistical anomaly, but it’s not a statement about a community at large. Kinda like the whole Russian tennis player thing. I think it feeds into the whole irritating, harmful model minority stereotype…

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