14-year-old desi girl wins Spelling Bee

Congrats, Anamika Veeramani!

The fourteen-year-old eighth grader from North Royalton, Ohio became the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion last night. Anamika won the trophy and $40,000 in cash and prizes after correctly spelling “stromuhr.” (If, like me, you weren’t familiar with that word, it’s “an instrument for measuring the velocity of the blood flow.”)

Anamika is the third consecutive Indian-American spelling bee champion (following Kavya Shivashankar last year and Sameer Mishra in 2008.) An astonishing 8 out of the last 12 spelling bee champions have been Indian-American. Slate’s Explainer column thinks the phenomenon can be attributed to the community’s “minor-league spelling bee circuit”:

The [North South Foundation] circuit consists of 75 chapters run by close to 1,000 volunteers. The competitions, which began in 1993, function as a nerd Olympiad for Indian-Americans—there are separate divisions for math, science, vocab, geography, essay writing, and even public speaking—and a way to raise money for college scholarships for underprivileged students in India. There is little financial reward for winners (just a few thousand dollars in college scholarships) compared with the $40,000 winning purse handed out each year by Scripps. Still, more than 3,000 kids participated in NSF’s spelling events this year due in part to what NSF founder Ratnam Chitturi calls a sort of Kavya Effect. “Most American kids look up to sports figures,” he says. “Indian kids are more interested in education, and they finally have a role model.”

For their part, Anamika’s family told the AP that they don’t know why Indian-Americans thrive at the bee:

[Anamika’s father Alagaiya Veeramani] guessed it has something to do with a hard-work ethic.

“This has been her dream for a very, very long time. It’s been a family dream, too,” said Veeramani, explaining that his daughter studied as many as 16 hours on some days. “I think it has to do with an emphasis on education.”

16 hours a day! Here’s hoping you have a relaxing summer, Anamika. You earned it.

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What’s missing from this picture?

Have you seen the new AT&T’s broadband commercial that takes place at a regional spelling bee? It seems to be on every time I turn on my television. While the premise is cute, I always feel like something is missing whenever I watch it. Where are the Indian-American kids?

Since Balu Natarajan won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985, Indian-American children have been entering spelling bees around the country in enormous numbers. So it is a bit jarring to see a portrayal of a modern day spelling bee without any South Asians at all.

Let’s take a closer look at this screenshot I took of the commercial:

I’ve been squinting at the above picture for the last 20 minutes and I can’t decide if the little boy with the glasses in the back is desi, so for the purposes of argument, let’s say that he is. Counting him, only one out of the seven children pictured was South Asian. Compare that to last year’s National Spelling Bee, where an astonishing 7 out of 11 finalists were Indian American. (Mini-biographies of the top ten finalists can be found here.)

Last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion was 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas. According to her official bio, Kavya was a spelling bee veteran, having “participated in the 2006, 2007, and 2008 national finals—tying for 10th, 8th, and 4th place, respectively.”

Watch the commercial below: