Of the 278 sweaty-palmed students hoping to be crowned champion of this week's 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee, chances are pretty good that the winner will be of Indian descent. Indian-Americans have won the past four contests, and 9 of the past 13 — even though they make up less than 1 percent of the population.
Over the past decade, South Asians have built a veritable dynasty on the spelling bee circuit; one commentator compared their dominance to Kenyans winning marathons.
"It's stunning!" says Pawan Dhingra, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Asian Pacific American Program.
"The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy. The fact that they would win more than once is impressive," he says. "But the fact that they would win at such a dominating level becomes almost a statistical impossibility. It's phenomenal, really. There is more than randomness going on."
Dhingra is heading up an exhibition at the Smithsonian next year on Indian-Americans that will try to explain the phenomenon. He says spelling bees offer a kind of perfect mix of everything that resonates deeply with Indian-Americans: the competition; the focus on academic achievement; the discipline it takes; and the way a tightknit family can team up to train together.
Arvind Mahankali,12, finished third and ninth in the National Spelling Bee in the past two years, and has been stepping up his training in hopes of finishing first this year. He's even trained his little brother, 8-year-old Srinath, to read phonetics so he can help with the drills.
They spend hours every day tediously going through the dictionary, with Srinath managing to properly pronounce words like "Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis." He gives Arvind the word origins and meanings, and Arvind usually scribbles in his palm for a moment before spitting back the letters — invariably correctly.
Arvind's dad, Srinivas Mahankali, says it's not just about the words. Rather, he sees spelling as a "window" into everything from history and culture to science and medicine. Mahankali says it's no surprise that spelling bees have caught on with Indian immigrants like him, who put great emphasis on learning.
"Even in Sanskrit, actually there is a shloka, or a saying, [that] if you learn something, nobody can take it away from you," he says. "So it will stay with you."
Mahankali says spelling also teaches kids logic, as they use a word's origin and meaning to deduce its spelling. But it is also, of course, an exercise in memorization, and while rote learning tends to be scorned in American schools these days, it is central to Indian education, and very much valued by immigrant parents who grew up that way, like Mahankali.
"Memory is so much emphasized in Indian traditional learning systems," he says.
Schoolchildren would often have to memorize poems so they could recite them — even in reverse. "It doesn't make any sense, but there were competitions to just chant it in reverse," Mahankali says.
Indian-American spelling successes have also been fueled in recent years by the South Asian-only farm leagues that have popped up. Those tournaments act as a kind of breeding ground, where many Indian versions of the "tiger mom" start their kids as young as 6 years old.
Mahankali says it's important to these immigrant parents that their kids excel academically. But they are especially eager to do well in English.
"The immigrants want to prove that they belong to the mainstream," he says. They are very eager to show that they have "mastered the cornerstone of the culture here — the language."
At his public middle school in Queens, N.Y., Arvind is definitely in the "in" group, seen by his classmates as both "cool" and something of a celebrity.
In just one week, he had several national reporters following him to his classes; Anderson Cooper invited him to a private spelling challenge on his daytime show. Not surprisingly, Arvind trounced Cooper, easily spelling obscure words that Cooper, laughing, admitted that he never even heard of.
That's the flip side to being a word whiz: Being master of the obscure doesn't always help a kid fit in. And some Indian-Americans worry about spelling bee champs being stereotyped or pigeonholed.
"There's a kind of strangeness and exoticism to it," says Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh. "It's a particular kind of academic niche. And there is also the danger of — well, you know, the difference between niche and a ghetto is fine line."
For his part, Arvind is determined to be more of the well-rounded type. He dabbles in drama, and plays a mean game of both tennis and basketball. He says he is equally open to a career in sports or theoretical physics. His parents say they're OK with either, as long as he pursues it as seriously as he does his spelling.