Pawan Dhingra, HomeSpun curator, attended the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee to collect important stories about the Indian American life. Here, he reflects on his two-day experience and discusses the history of Indian American youths who have stood out at this competition.
Sukanya’s tall, thin frame trembled a bit for the first time all night, as she enunciated her final set of letters: c-y-m-o-t-r-i-c-h-o-u-s. Yet, her long hair continued to fall straight down, a fitting sign of control over the word she had just spelled, which means having wavy hair. With that final word correctly spelled, Sukanya Roy had just won the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Overwhelmed with excitement and exhaustion, she had an uncontrollable smile as she accepted her trophy, live on ESPN.
It had been a long night, around 11pm, that had started with thirteen finalists at 8:30pm. Each, along with the other 262 competitors at this years’ Bee, had already proven themselves formidable spellers as well as friendly competitors. As they asked one another to sign their Bee photobooks, ran through the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside of Washington DC, and went up to the podium to spell words I could not even pronounce, they seemed a focused yet joyous bunch. As one spelled a word correctly, he would be greeted by high-fives from his competitors as he sat back down. When a word was spelled incorrectly, it was not just the parents who showed signs of grief; other spellers did as well. The competition had brought them closer together.
The contestants were almost an equal number of boys and girls, came from all over the country and from other parts of the world, and ranged in ages from eight to fifteen. Of this wide range of impressive youth, one trend stood out to me: the over-representation of Indian American participants. For instance, of the final thirteen, seven were Indian American. Sukanya became the fourth Indian American in a row to win the championship, and the eighth in the past twelve competitions. The first Indian American to win was Balu Natarajan in 1985.
Answers abound to the question of why Indian Americans dominate spelling bees. Rather than focus on that question here, what is also noteworthy is the highly competitive dimension to the Spelling Bee. While often framed as simply studious or even as geeks, these contestants have much in common with athletes. They put in hours of preparation; they go through rounds of competitions; they compete on a national stage for money and fame; and they take winning seriously. It is not a coincidence that the Spelling Bee is broadcast live on ESPN. And like other major league champions, Sukanya and her family were awarded with a visit to the White House and a meeting with the President.
Spelling Bees clearly have become a significant part of Indian American youths’ extracurricular activities. For the Roy’s, however, it seems to be coming to a close. As a past winner, Sukanya cannot participate again. And as an only child, it may be another Indian American family hosting the trophy next year. In any case, the youth who take part will deserve applause and then some well-earned rest.
Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.