Hurricane Sandy reminds us of the origins of Manhattan street names

© nickolae - Fotolia.comAs a Jersey girl by birth and a one-time resident of Lower Manhattan, the news of Hurricane Sandy hit me hard. Living on the west coast, it’s hard to imagine people navigating the Lower East Side by boat or entire boardwalks along the Jersey shore washed away into oblivion.

Now, as recovery begins, people are starting to ask questions. Are storms like Hurricane Sandy going to become the norm because of global warming? What was the storm trying to tell us about the places we inhabit and the way we inhabit them?

As the rivers surged and flooded into New York City, it brought to the surface an interesting fact unbeknownst to me — much of Lower Manhattan, which experienced some of the most dramatic flooding, is actually built on centuries’ worth of landfill. And with that realization, I began to understand that New York City’s downtown street names are trying to tell us something — they’re holding onto a piece of watery New York history:

The old shoreline of Manhattan was actually Pearl Street, supposedly named after all the oysters in the adjacent river. Most of the ground beyond that is landfill.

While the origins of the name Wall Street are somewhat disputed, popular accounts suggest the street was an actual wall that ran along the old shoreline (starting at Pearl).

Nearby, Canal Street is named after the actual canal that used to be there — it was dug to drain the filthy, diseased Collect Pond (which made the surrounding area even marshier).

And there’s the aptly named Water Street, which became the new shoreline of the East River when the island was extended through landfill in the 18th century.

It shows us that water has long flowed where we now build parks, condos and restaurants. — and for centuries, man has tried to keep it at bay, extending the shoreline of Manhattan. Now, it seems we’re witnessing a battle of man vs. nature as superstorms hit areas like New Jersey, which are typically known for being temperate. Mayor Bloomberg knows he has his work cut out for him if he wants to save the city we all love so much — perhaps his biggest hurdle will be convincing people, once and for all, that global warming is real.

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.”

Jock, meathead, and other words used to describe Ryan Lochte

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Part of what makes the Olympics so riveting is our voracious, Michael Phelps-sized appetites for controversy. From bad-attitude badminton players to the trending topic of Gabby Douglas’s hair, we can’t seem to get enough of Olympic-inspired drama. As viewers, we judge and score the athletes from afar (“She wore that much mascara for a race?!” or “They gave a 9.5 to that guy who runs like Charlie Chaplin?!”) like the Olympian gods from on high.

One of America’s favorite Olympians to watch was Ryan Lochte: Will he win another gold? Is he better than Michael Phelps? What ridiculous thing will he say next in an interview? His interviews were so bad, they became an Internet sensation of their own

What followed was a slew of articles calling Lochte “more brawn than brains,” a jock, a meathead, and even sexy but dumb. Now, I won’t defend everything Lochte has said or done. But I will say I’ve never been a huge fan of labels like jock or meathead. So where do these words come from? Well, they’re certainly nothing new. The term jock came into use in the 1950s or 60s and is actually shortened from jockstrap. Meathead probably goes as far back as the 1860s and is quite literal in its origins (a head made of meat), but rose to popularity thanks to All in the Family. (Interestingly, nerd also rose to prominence in the early 1950s, and sissy dates all the way back to the late 1800s.)

In other words, we still rely on old-fashioned words and thinking to fit people who are different from us into neat little boxes, because we’re too lazy to deal with the fact that nobody is that simple. If we’re going to have high expectations around cultivating Olympians who are well-rounded citizens for life — not just heroic athletes for two weeks every four years — we need to have more meaningful discussions. We can’t just criticize China’s Olympic program and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

I remember a moving NPR piece from 2008 that looked at what happened to Olympians after their prime — especially the vast majority who never win a medal. They give their bodies and their best years in pursuit of something bigger than themselves. But when it’s all over, they have the extremely difficult struggle of trying to find out who they are when they can no longer do what has defined them their whole lives. Ryan Lochte isn’t going to be able to avoid the question Michael Phelps is facing now, and that so many Olympians have faced before: what next? (After all, partying and appearing on The Bachelor or Dancing With the Stars aren’t long-term plans.) Jock or not, I wish him the best.