Why Indian Americans are Best at Bees

Snigdha Nandipati, her parents in the background, speaking to reporters after her victory

After spelling the word “Guetapens,” Snigdha Nandipati wasn’t sure what to do or expect. She blinked and looked to both sides before the sparkling confetti fluttered down over her hair and face. Then the smile broke, as the 14-year-old Indian American from California finally registered that she was the 2012 Scripps Spelling Bee champion.

In second place was another 14-year-old, Stuti Mishra from Florida, followed by Arvind Mahankali, a 12-year-old from New York, in third. Like Snigdha, the two runners-up are Indian American children.

This was also the fifth straight year that an Indian American had won the Spelling Bee, and the tenth time in the last 14 years.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a similar scene at the 24th National Geography Bee in Washington, D.C., where Indian American kids took the top four positions. In first place was Rahul Nagvekar, 14, an eighth-grader from Texas, who won a $25,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society, and a trip for two to the Galapagos Islands on an expedition aboard the National Geographic Endeavour.

“It’s stunning… The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy. The fact that they would win more than once is impressive,” Pawan Dhingra, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program, said in an interview on National Public Radio. “But the fact that they would win at such a dominating level becomes almost a statistical impossibility. It’s phenomenal, really. There is more than randomness going on.”

So how and why do Indian Americans fare so well in these bees, now described by some as “The Desi Hunger Games”?

Amardeep Singh, an associate professor of English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, notes that it hasn’t always been the case. “The trend of Indian American children doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee really dates from 1999, when Nupur Lala won the Bee and was featured in a documentary called Spellbound. Since then, the interest in competing in spelling bees has positively reinforced itself,” he told India Real Time. The first Spelling Bee was back in 1925 (it was won by Frank Neuhauser with the word “gladiolus”.)

Mr. Singh says Indian American success in bees is probably due to four factors: the positive reinforcement effect; highly educated immigrant parents; the Indian educational system’s emphasis on rote learning; and the competitive advantage provided by the “farm leagues” for South Asian American children, such as North South Foundation.

Mr. Singh believes that it is also the enthusiasm and passion of the children themselves that complements parental pressure to succeed.

“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,” adds Sharmila Sen, who taught English at Harvard University and is currently executive editor at the Harvard University Press.

“In America, we find out that our children are educated at the secondary level in a radically different way [to in India]. So, when we find out about the great American tradition of the bee, we think we can assimilate as well as anyone,” she told IRT.

Ms. Sen believes that Indian American parents encourage kids to process information in a way we were once encouraged to do, and we value the rewards that come with that form of information processing.

Will this continue? Will third and fourth generation immigrant children be as successful? “I think the trend of Indian American spelling champs may last a few more years — as the current generation of Indian immigrant families from the tech-boom of the 1990s and 2000s matures. Since I think the immigrant status of the parents is a crucial factor in the success of Indian American children in the spelling bee, I suspect that the children of these spellers may not continue the tradition,” says Mr. Singh.

Source: The Wall Street Journal


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