By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Scripps National Spelling Bee has attracted attention the past several years for the number of South Asian American winners. At the conclusion of the contest this past June, eight co-champions were announced, the majority of whom were South Asian American. Shalini Shankar’s new nonfiction release, Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success, explores the characteristics of Generation Z kids in general, and South Asian American kids in specific, and how these characteristics lend them a competitive edge, which might be greater than any generation we have heretofore seen.
According to Shankar, Generation Z kids (those born after 1997) are uniquely situated to get ahead. Their lives are such that they navigate the digital world with ease, and they take on adult activities much earlier than any previous generation, all with an aim to compete in the job market. The National Spelling Bee, which is now being called the “orthographic Super Bowl,” attracts and encourages children, from a very young age, who become adept at what used to be considered adult activities.
Not only are they highly competitive, and skilled at time management and studying skills, but they are also already creating online personas and even opening companies.
“Now kids are doing in elementary and middle school what older millennials were expected to do in high school and college,” explains Shankar. “They have resumes, become Instagram and YouTube stars, establish corporations, and offer coaching services at pricey hourly rates.”
But why are Asian American children, and especially South Asian American children, at the forefront of this trend? For one thing, as Shankar explains, “Children of immigrants comprise the largest minority group in Generation Z,” making it simply a matter of numbers. However, there is something more, a particular mindset of the parents of these children, that fosters success.
In a nutshell, it has to do with immigrant parents who, according to Shankar, come to the United States after experiencing fierce competition in their home countries, and ready and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their children’s success.
Shankar speaks about Indian American parents in particular, yet these traits can be attributed to a wide swath of Generation Z immigrant mothers and fathers.
“The professional qualifications…and the high value they put on education make them very focused on their children and grooming them for successful futures…Bee parents bring an intensity to parenting that rivals, if not exceeds, their U.S.-born peers…They devoted financial resources and extensive support, which very often included a stay-at-home parent…Few bemoan it as a sacrifice.”
Shankar compares this method of parenting to the “stealth parenting” that characterized many millennial households, which was less structured. She goes even further back, to baby boomers, who valued play over study, in large part because, at that time, financial stability, and the ability of parents to pass it on to their children, was more assured. Times have changed.
In researching her book, Shankar spent time at the National Spelling Bee, and interviewed the families and children involved, as well as Scripps and ESPN staff (yes, the Bee is on ESPN—it’s a “brain sport”). She discusses the celebrity status of the winners (called “spellebrities”) and the debate as to whether these types of intense competitions are beneficial to the children involved.
The topic is interesting, and Shankar is not unique in covering it. We find similar material in recent K-12 teaching guides, such as 2017’s The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us About Raising Students Who Excel by Cornelius N. Grove. We find the subject in conversations about the model minority. Or in Amy Chua’s famous (or infamous?) memoir, Tiger Mother. The Bee itself has been covered, too, and with racial overtones, such as in the award-winning 2006 movie, Akeelah and the Bee. The problem with Shankar’s approach in Beeline is that it is extremely repetitive and, while it goes into several aspects of Generation Z and how South Asian Americans play into Generation Z’s approach to education and parenting, it still only scratches the surface. Everything that Shankar is going to say is said in the first chapter, which would have made a wonderful article, but unfortunately since it goes on from there, makes only for a mediocre book.
Perhaps it’s a research method, yet the re-hashing of each main idea over and over again did not appeal. And unfortunately, even the case studies, which we might rely upon for variety—do not have any variety. Each Bee speller, though he or she is adorable and intimidating all at the same time, more or less experiences the same things. As do each speller’s parents, with few exceptions. That’s part of what the book is about! Not only that, but the writing style does not hold attention. Each chapter begins with a page and a half of exposition, and then the reader is told, “This is what this chapter is going to be about,” which precipitates another paragraph of…what the chapter and/or book…is about. Again. This might be how things are done in Shankar’s field of study (she teaches anthropology and Asian Studies at Northwestern University), yet in this book, which already has a conversational tone which makes everything very easy to understand, the blow-by-blow approach is mind-numbingly redundant.
The best part of the book happens at the end, just one chapter before the “conclusion” chapter. In chapter nine, Shankar broaches in slightly more detail the racist backlash (already mentioned in previous chapters, but done better here) that has come upon the heels of the South Asian American winning streak. Here’s a sample: “While decades of white winners drew no racial comment, the overwhelming success of Indian Americans at the National Spelling Bee has been met with visible, vocal backlash. Racist outbursts suggest that their display of human capital is a threat to white dominance.” In this same chapter, she also discusses, with more passion than earlier in the book, the economic disparity present in the Bee. Meaning, the winners come from families that can afford to give them all the best in time and resources—so they can win. Now that is some hot button trigger stuff.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.