I haven't been paying attention to the Spelling Bee yet, but with the semis and final round coming up tomorrow, I thought I'd take a look at the Semifinalists list online. As I scrolled down through all the faces, I got that sinking feeling: Where are all the desi kids?? How will they maintain their hegemony?? I had to scroll past five kids of varying hues before I finally came to the first, Ramya Auroprem, an 8th grader from San Jose ("Ramya is fascinated by linguistics and is eager to learn new languages."). Out of 41 semifinalists, I counted 14 Indian kids - a goodly percentage, but they'd best not let that kind of scare happen again.
FYI, the Semifinals are on ESPN on Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern time, and the Finals start on Thursday at 8 pm on ABC.
A onetime competitor, Ahalya Nava, wrote to me today, pointing out this little Fun Fact posted on the Scripps website:
Things have certainly changed since the 1980’s. I remember back in 1986, perhaps only a
handful of us South Asians at the National Spelling Bee, and being surprised at
seeing even 3 or 5. We were a shy group,
in awe and full of gratitude for the opportunity to represent our schools and
our states, and to have the opportunity to meet and shake hands with President
Reagan. I don’t think any major news
channel might have even carried our stories or the competition.
Fast forward 23 years, and there are at least 32 South Asians represented in the National Spelling Bee of approximately 293 total competitors – that’s approximately 10% of the entire competitor base.
The kids hail from various states, from New Jersey to New York to Illinois to Kansas and more. Their dreams are big, not just to win the bee, but to go on to incredible colleges and professions and more. They also have other South Asians kids to draw from in the history of the National Bee, especially since several South Asians have now either won the competition or placed in the top 10.
The media coverage has increased in the last 23 years. Now ESPN and ABC primetime cover the semifinals and finals respectively – ABC primetime, can you believe it! The fact that the National Spelling Bee is covered by primetime television is a positive sign - that major networks who depend on advertising dollars are getting the kind of support from advertisers that allow it to continue to present this at primetime.
As far as reality television goes, aside from the one-hit wonders we have seen on American Idol and a few television commercials and shows, this represents a great platform for the South Asian community, in that the ABC hosts of the primetime finals of the Bee typically interview the finalists as they come off the stage or relay interesting tidbits of information about their families (like backgrounds and aspirations and dreams and stories of “how they got here”) to the primetime audience. It really is an opportunity to see and get to know some members of the South Asian community from a grounded perspective and allows viewers a chance to realize that we are all the same, with the same aspirations and dreams, and with the same kinds of struggles.