Chocolate and Gold Coins

Monday, June 06, 2005

Competitions and Ethnicity

Why is it that certain countries or certain ethnic groups a simply good at some forms of competition? For example, Brazilians are very good at soccer, Cubans in boxing, Kenyans in marathon running, Dominicans in baseball, …and Indians in spelling??? Well, curiously, most of the top spellers in the U.S. national spelling bee - including this year’s winner – are ethnic Indians. I wrote before that Indians are poor in sports, but they do well in other types of competitions. Besides spelling, the one of the best chess players in the world (should be number one now that Kasparov retired) is V. Anand from India. It isn’t surprising that Indians would excel at something, but why do ethnic group tend to specialize?

In the case of spelling, there is obviously a feeling among ethnic Indians in America that this is a competition that they can excel in. You might think that all children would have the opinion that they have the potential to excel in any competition until years of experience prove otherwise. Not so. Children believe they can excel if they see people like them excelling and they get some kind of encouragement from their parents. If Indians never see another Indian excel in some particular sport, they quickly come to the conclusion that Indians are no good at the sport, and this opinion becomes a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if someone does excel in a competition, it paves the way for others to believe that they also could excel.

There is an interesting memoir of sort by Manish Vij at Sepia Mutiny describing the Indian-American attitude toward spelling bees. Indians probably have an advantage because the immigrant population tends to be very bookish and their children read a lot. Here is a part of Manish’s post:

I confess more than a passing interest in bees because I was one of them: one of the chubby-cheeked dork army in huge plastic glasses whose parents spent weeks drilling them on the official Scripps Howard word lists. Je t’aime, bouillabaisse. You so crazy, wallydraigle. Come to me, caulescent, you paragon of prestidigitation. My prize possession at the time was an unabridged dictionary. My young parents spent weeks finding one that wouldn’t weigh as heavily on the wallet as on the desk.

Obviously, parental support or lack of support is a big, perhaps crucial, factor in the child’s success in a competition. It is probable that most parents in India would discourage any sport other than cricket because they would argue that the time would be better spent studying or working. Future Olympic athletes in India are nipped in the bud. But, for the ones who come to America, they kick butt in spelling.


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