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9 out of 11 finalists at the USA 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee were Indian

by Ashima

A moment of pride for all South Asians!

By Ashima Sethi

Yesterday saw the final round of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee take place in Orlando, Florida. Every year over 11 million children participate in school level bees, with the hope of making it to the national level of competition. After a tense few rounds, Speller 133, Zaila Avant-garde was crowned the winner, an incredible moment of redemption as she tied for 370th place in the same competition in 2019. 13-year old Zaila is now the first African-American winner in the spelling bee’s 96-year history.

Until this point, every edition of the National Spelling Bee since 2008 had a South Asian child take top position, with many now recognising spelling bees in the USA as platforms where children of minority groups, especially those from the South Asian community, are really given the opportunity to shine. This year, the bee saw nine Indian finalists out of 11: Bhavana Madini, 13; Sreethan Gajula, 14; Ashrita Gandhari, 14; Avani Joshi, 13; Vivinsha Veduru, 10; Dhroov Bharatia, 12; Vihaan Sibal, 12; Akshainie Kamma, 13; Chaitra Thummala, 12. But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always this way.

Indian-Americans are actually considered one of the newer immigrant groups living in the US, with a reported 60 percent of Indian immigrants arriving in the States after the year 2000. As multigenerational Thai-Indians, a lot of us can relate to experiencing diasporic culture, living abroad and seeking a community that fits the same comforts you’d find at ‘home’, it’s not hard to relate to Indian-Americans who use events like spelling bees to facilitate the sense of community we all look for.

For example, in 1985 Balu Natarajan became the first South Asian child to win the National Spelling Bee, which resulted in an outpouring of support from other South Asian families. Speaking to The New York Times in an article published earlier this morning about the most recent edition of the spelling bee, he said: “Many people who I’d never even met felt a connection to it. I had no idea how much one could be embraced by a community.”

The culture around spelling bees has grown significantly over the last two decades or so, and has resulted in the increase of private coaching services run by South Asian families, more individuals embracing local spelling bees for their children, and competitions on every level, whether in small towns or on the national stage, being promoted at Indian-dominated supermarkets, temples, and social gatherings. The culture around the simple concept of a spelling bee has evolved so much that it’s gone beyond just individual achievement and has become an occasion of unification for all immigrant families in the USA.

Those who aren’t familiar with spelling bees might think, “well what’s the fuss? How hard can it be to spell out a few words?” Well the answer is, it’s much harder than you think. Going on achieve great things in a spelling bee reflects the child’s abilities, but it also reflects the importance we as Indian immigrants give to education in all aspects. According to the NYT piece, former champion Rishik Gandhasri explained how he spent on average up to four hours a day learning new words, in addition to homework and extracurriculars. Another contestant, Akash Vukoti said he started training at six years old, spending up to five hours learning new terms.

Training and succeeding in the competitions is a microcosm of the Indian culture of working hard and prioritising learning. This can be seen in the statistics that demonstrate how Indian-Americans have one of the highest rates of educational attainment, with a third achieving college degrees and over 40 percent achieving postgraduate degrees (Pew Research). Stats that are unsurprising as we Indians recognise education as a means of opening doors of opportunity in societies that can prove unwelcome.

Although the world might seem all doom and gloom right now, a story like this is a welcome reminder of just how far Indian communities have come over the years and how proud we should all be when each of us succeeds!

Image credit to The New York Times.

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