“The way to win the bee is simply 90 percent hard work, 10 percent other.”
That recipe for spelling bee success is from Akash Vukoti, who at age 6 was the youngest contestant at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Akash is one of four Indian-American children followed in the heartwarming documentary Breaking the Bee, which examines why Indian Americans, who make up 1 percent of the U.S. population, so heavily dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is taking place May 29 to 31 this year.
Since 1999, 18 of the bee’s 22 winners have been Indian-American children, and Breaking the Bee pulls back the curtain to reveal the inner family dynamics that are turning so many Indian Americans into superspellers. The four children are all documented as they strive to make it into the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee, and as Breaking the Bee charts their journeys, it intersperses commentary from big-name Indian Americans such as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, scholars such as anthropologist Shalini Shankar, and spelling bee experts such as Jacques Bailly, the national bee’s longtime word pronouncer.
This well-researched documentary leaves you with two broad insights. First, the “10 percent other” that Akash references is a constellation of factors that align just perfectly to generate Indian-American spelling success. Second, spelling bee dominance is just one indicator of how America excels at attracting some of the world’s most talented and hardworking individuals and allows them to assimilate and thrive on their own terms.
“After introducing the four hyper-enthusiastic, word-obsessed kids vying to be national champions, Breaking the Bee flashes back to 1965…”
After introducing the four hyper-enthusiastic, word-obsessed kids vying to be national champions, Breaking the Bee flashes back to 1965, when that year’s Immigration and Nationality Act scaled back racist elements of U.S. immigration policy. Henceforth, people with skills and family connections would be given preference. We hear a recording of President Lyndon B. Johnson saying in his Texas accent, “Those who can contribute most to this country, to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit, will be the first that are admitted.”
As a result, Zakaria reminds us, it wasn’t just any Indians who came to America after 1965; rather, they were “very adventurous” English-speaking engineers, doctors, graduate students, and IT workers. Comedian Hari Kondabolu, of The Problem With Apu fame, tells us, “They picked people who were the most educated, who could add a very clear monetary value and serve a clear purpose for America and its economy.”
Unsurprisingly, these highly educated immigrants had the skills and resources to foster academic success in their U.S.-born children. But why the spelling bee specifically?
As Breaking the Bee presents it, Indian Americans have experienced a virtuous cycle of success breeding success. In 1985, Balu Natarajan won, and his victory raised awareness about the Scripps National Spelling Bee among Indian Americans. Then, in 1994, ESPN started broadcasting the bee. No longer was it just something you read about in the newspaper the day after. You could actually see Indian Americans on a sports channel! The big turning point seems to have been Nupur Lala’s victory in 1999, which was captured in the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound.
From that moment, many Indian Americans became spellbound by the bee. Zakaria says: “Success seemed attainable. It seemed achievable because you had watched other Indian Americans do it.…[When] people can imagine the success, it’s tangible — it’s not abstract — they go for it. And they work hard for it. So the success has then bred success and led to even greater success.”
“The Scripps National Spelling Bee became a place where brown children with funny names and foreign-accented parents fit in.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee became a place where brown children with funny names and foreign-accented parents fit in. Indian-American kids watching TV saw kids who had names like theirs, who had parents like theirs. Lala expresses a sentiment that undoubtedly resonates with many Indian-American kids: “I’d never been in settings where I didn’t feel distinctly different — for having my name, for looking the way I did…Where I was really inspired was seeing a list of the kids who were finalists in 1997, and at that point it was a majority of Indian spellers. And so as an Indian student, this felt like an arena in which I could compete and be successful…Seeing so many Indian spellers at Scripps [in 1999] gave me a sense of comfort and a sense of belonging, and also it was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel extremely different.”
So if you have highly educated English-speaking parents and highly motivated children all fascinated by spelling bees, what’s going on within homes? Breaking the Bee shows us that preparing for a bee is a family affair. Mom, dad, and siblings are all in.
At Ashrita Gandhari’s home, Mom draws a face on a whiteboard, and both Ashrita and her sister identify the Latin and Greek words for facial features. Akash’s family has mock spelling bees, with Mom, Dad, and sister wearing cards around their necks. Shourav Dasari’s family has what his father calls a “family trade secret”: a massive spreadsheet of word pronunciations written with diacritical marks into which Shourav types correct spellings. Whereas other families might play Monopoly or Crazy Eights, these families play spelling games, and whereas other parents might put their kids in swimming or ballet, these parents sign their kids up for spelling bees (and tennis and Indian dance).
And then there’s multilingualism. Akash can read and write not just English, but Telugu and Hindi. We see him writing Telugu words in the language’s curvy letters. Posing in front of a whiteboard, he displays the longest word in Telugu. Tejas Muthusamy says he’s 50 percent fluent in Tamil and 10 percent in French. Shourav understands Telugu when his parents speak it.
Even Hindu philosophy apparently plays a part. Tejas’s mom references one of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita: Do your duty, but don’t focus on the results. There are too many things outside your control. Similarly, Ashrita’s dad says they’re focusing on the process, not the outcome, and that “results will come on their own.”
“With Indian Americans on a winning streak, is there any end in sight?”
With Indian Americans on a winning streak, is there any end in sight? In the near future, probably not. But Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, says: Indian-American spelling bee dominance “is in part a reflection of this particular time in our history and some of the values that have been instilled by Indian immigrants on their kids…But I think as generations go on, you may see less of a focus on things like spelling bees and hopefully more of a focus on other areas as well, things that may not necessarily be purely academic but other areas where kids are interested in and want to excel. So I think you’ll see more broadening out of particularly Indian-American kids’ interests.”
Zakaria helps close the documentary on a patriotic note by saying: “What these kids show more than anything else is American assimilation at work. Here are kids who really come from a very different world and culture…and they are taking part in the most American tradition, doing well at it, playing by the rules. If that’s not American assimilation at work, I don’t know what is.”
Breaking the Bee is a warm, fuzzy, feel-good examination of the meritocratic elements that make America a place where people of all backgrounds can succeed. It celebrates family, hard work, education, and the sheer joy of being a child obsessed with words. At a time when American politics and society are so angrily divided, Breaking the Bee leaves you feeling optimistic — optimistic not just about the future of Indian Americans, but optimistic that in the long run America is on the right track.
Visit breakingthebee.com for information on future screening and/or distribution of the documentary.