Monday, June 29, 2015


Bobby Jindal’s announcement that he will be competing for the 2016 GOP presidential ticket is being met with mixed emotions by the Indian community. Jindal has already secured the distinction of being the first person of Indian heritage to serve as governor of a US state – for two terms, no less. This is a position he gained by winning a very large margin over his opponents – no small achievement in the southern state of Louisiana that has a long history of racial tension. No matter the outcome of his run for presidency, Jindal is the first of his kind to have accomplished what he has so far.

However, any pride that the Indian community may feel that a person of Indian origin has come so far in America’s political echelons is misplaced, and should be tempered with the reality that Bobby Jindal is not the typical Indian immigrant. As Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary of the United Nations has noted in his latest book, India Shastra: Tharoor asks “How proud should we be of Bobby Jindal?” and answers “Let us be proud that a brown-skinned man with an Indian name has achieved what Bobby Jindal has. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that we should be proud of how he behaves, or what he stands for.”

Jindal was born Piyush Jindal, but at the age of four, he asked to be called Bobby, after the youngest character in the television show The Brady Bunch. Apart from rejecting the name given to him by his parents (although legally he still is Piyush), Jindal has openly dissociated himself from his Indian heritage. In his teens, he converted from the religion of his birth, Hinduism, to Christianity. He dislikes being called “Indian-American” and prefers the term “American.”  As Tharoor clarifies in India Shastra: “…Bobby has never supported a single Indian issue; he refused to join the India Caucus when he was a Congressman at Capitol Hill, and is conspicuously absent from any event with a visiting Indian leader. It is as if he wants to forget he is Indian, and would like voters to forget it too.”

If Jindal wishes voters to forget that detail about his origin, Indians on the Twitter-sphere have not.  Following Jindal’s announcement to run for president, Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu began the flurry of tweets mocking Jindal with the hashtag #bobbyjindalissowhite:

While the comment above was tweeted in jest, Kondabolu may have accidently hit upon a truth: Tharoor states, on a serious note, in India Shastra (about Jindal) that “The two of us jointly won something called an Excelsior Award once from the Network of Indian Professionals in the US, and his acceptance speech on the occasion was striking – obligatory references to the Indian values of his parents, but a speech so American in tone and intonation that he mangled the Indian name of his own brother.” 

Another tweet from Kondabolu reads:

And another, on a half-serious note:

Adding to Kondabolu’s hashtag, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi created the hashtag #Jindian as the Indian version of “redneck,” and tweeted the following:

This last tweet is in reference to the controversy regarding Jindal’s unofficial portrait done by Louisiana painter Tommy Yow Jr. from a photograph of Jindal, where the skin tone on the portrait is several tones lighter than the skin of the real Jindal. This portrait has been hanging in the Louisiana Capitol office since 2008, but people took notice only in February of this year when a blogger tweeted a picture of the portrait causing an onslaught of comments and jokes.

While the jokes about Jindal’s choices of personal identity are entertaining, what is not so amusing is Jindal’s stance on political issues. It is Jindal’s option to associate with or dissociate from whomever he pleases. However, if the Indian community were better aware of Bobby Jindal’s political opinions, the majority would rather he not be associated with the Indian diaspora.

According to 2012 statistics from The Pew Research Center, 65% of Indian Americans are Democrats or left-leaning; 18% are Republican. As a conservative Republican, Jindal stands severely opposed to the prevailing values of the Indian community. As Tharoor notes:

“Most Indian-Americans are in favour of gun control, support a woman’s right to choose abortion, advocate immigrants’ rights, and oppose school prayer (for fear it will marginalize non-Christians). On every one of these issues, Bobby Jindal is on the opposite side. He’s not just conservative; on these questions, he is well to the right of his own party.”

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being opposed to the majority viewpoint, or changing your name, or choosing a religion different from that of your birth, what is disconcerting about Jindal is the sum of his parts.

Jindal’s choices of identity, while an affront to some, are more perplexing than offensive. By his own account, Jindal maintains that the Indian values he grew up with were very much in consonance with the values of the larger community, and he had no trouble fitting in. In his 2010 book, Leadership and Crisis, Jindal states: 

“But the values I learned from my Hindu parents ran deep: honesty, respect for elders, hard work, modesty, reverence, the importance of family--traditional Hindu values that meshed quite well with Louisiana's traditional Bible Belt beliefs. I never felt culturally different from your typical Baton Rouge kid.”

If cultural assimilation was not the goal of Jindal’s shift in religion, and subsequent associations and dissociations, then what was? Some believe it is a calculated move to further his political ambitions. 

Bobby Jindal has an impressive education that few can equal. He graduated from Brown University, double-majoring in Biology and Public Policy. He was accepted at Harvard Medical School, and Yale Law School, but chose a third option instead: He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and studied Political Science with a focus on Health Policy. 

Jindal’s work history is equally remarkable: His first public-service job was as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Later, he became the executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, in Washington D.C. He then moved from healthcare to education, when he became president of the University of Louisiana. Finally, before he became governor of Louisiana, he was also the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration.

Despite a wealth of education and work experience, Jindal launches his rhetoric from the vantage point of his religion: He is vehemently against gay marriage, responding to this week’s supreme court ruling legalizing gay marriage with: 

“This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision. This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.” 

He is against abortion and stem cell research, and supports the teaching of creationism/Intelligent Design in schools. In 2008, as Governor, he passed Senate Bill 561 (SB561), which paves the way for creationism to be taught in Louisiana’s public schools. Efforts from the scientific community to repeal the bill have been unsuccessful so far. One such effort, spearheaded by then high school student Zack Kopplin included having 78 Nobel laureates as well as Jindal’s genetics professor from Brown University urge him to repeal it, but to no avail.

Jindal also views gun legislation from the lens of religious freedom. He is a poster child for the National Rifle Association (NRA). He has an A+ rating from the NRA for his long-standing work on proliferating gun-ownership and curtailing gun safety legislation in America. In Jindal’s own words: 

“I was proud to pass Louisiana’s own second amendment to our state constitution, giving us the strongest pro-gun laws in America... I am honored to earn the NRA’s highest national award for legislative achievement.”

In April this year, as in previous years, Jindal addressed the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum, where he likened efforts to curtail gun-ownership with infringements on religious freedoms. He told the adoring NRA soldiery that the NRA is “the most effective civil rights organization” in America. He criticized New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for “pressuring grocery stores and restaurants to ban guns,” and warned that “next, he (Bloomberg) will bully sporting goods stores to quit selling guns and ammo.” 
He reminded the audience about the NRA’s recent victory in quashing Obama’s proposal to ban civilian use of “green-tip” ammunition that has armor-piercing capabilities: “We rose up and we stopped him…” he said, to a cheering crowd.

In his efforts to neutralize the disadvantage of being an ethnic minority, and his desire to minimize the “elitist” stigma sometimes associated with being an educated intellectual, Bobby Jindal has foolishly espoused the cause of the far-right conservatives of the Republican party. Now he’s stuck with it, or perhaps it’s grown on him, and he really believes the toxic jabberwocky he spews.

It is difficult to grant people the quality of being genuine if they themselves reject who they are. Furthermore, if your choices for change in identity are motivated by reasons other than survival, or ease of living, or assimilation, but rather, are calculated steps taken to further political agenda, you risk being seen as inauthentic.

Bobby Jindal is a contradiction in his own self-chosen identity. Despite his very impressive education, when he speaks, he sounds like an unsure novice with a mantra of a few politically charged words that he keeps recycling: gun rights…  second amendment… religious freedom… liberty…. America is the greatest country in the history of the world……

It is hard to parse out what Bobby Jindal really believes in, and what characteristics he has carefully chosen to hold him in good stead in the political arena. He appears to be a calculated shell of a person, with not much authenticity within. 

In the words of Lewis Carroll: Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spelling S-U-C-C-E-S-S Part II. A Socio-Linguistic View on Why Indians Dominate the Spelling Bee

The question of why Indian Americans dominate the Spelling Bee is a recent one. We are two years shy of a decade since Indian Americans have been continuously winning the Spelling Bee. Further, fifteen of the past nineteen winners are of Indian origin. Indian domination at the Spelling Bee is now a well-known phenomenon. Less well-known are the reasons for this spectacular streak of success by one ethnicity. There are multiple explanations for these winnings, but most explanations leave questions in their wake. Here is my offering of an answer that may be potentially more satisfying.

In my 2013 blogpost, Spelling S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Why Indian Americans Excel at the Spelling Bee, I present the hypothesis that Indians dominate the Bee because of the historical-linguistic baggage that Indian immigrants carry.  I wrote: 

“India has a 400-yr old legacy of deciphering, interacting with, borrowing from, incorporating and finally adopting English as a language of its own. This linguistic legacy has far-reaching repercussions – perhaps as far as the E.W. Scripps Spelling Bee in America!” 

Thus, I suggest that the children of recent Indian immigrants, i.e. 2nd. generation Indian Americans are reaping the harvest of this historical-linguistic baggage, as evidenced in their domination in the Spelling Bee. My hypothesis includes the prediction that as an ethnic group, the high levels of successful performance by Indian Americans will be restricted to only 2nd. generation children. Third and subsequent generations of Indian Americans who do not have parentage who grew up in India, will not be a part of this phenomenal success. An elaboration on this position follows:

The reasons typically attributed by media analyses of Indians’ success are:

Exemplary study habits
Bee winners of all ethnicities report that they spend innumerable hours practicing spelling. Since many other ethnicities have exemplary study habits, this factor does not shed light on why Indians, in particular, excel at the Bee.

Very high levels of competitiveness among Indians
This factor surely contributes to why there are a large number of Indian contestants at the regional and national levels. However, there are other ethnicities that are equally competitive. Thus, although this factor contributes to success, it does not clarify why children of Indians surpass children of Tiger Moms of other Asian 

Cultural attributes that ascribe high value to education and “brain-sports”
Being called a “nerd” in India is not particularly a pejorative term. Indians typically take pride in accomplishments that entail long hours of study. The Spelling Bee fits well into this category.

Indians’ familiarity with rote-learning 
Traditional Indian education has a centuries-long history in rote learning. Memorization is at the heart of much of traditional Indian education. Rote learning plays an integral part of learning spelling in English as there are more exceptions than rules.

The North South Foundation
The North South Foundation is a non-profit organization that funds the higher education of under-privileged youth in India. During the early years of the NSF, the organizers were asked what they do for Indians living in the US, and thus began the practice of training Indian children to compete in the Spelling Bee.  

The NSF is the sole reason why there are so many Indian American participants at the Bee.  The NSF holds regional competitions in its over 60 chapters across the US that introduce children from very young ages – as young as 6 years - to competitive spelling, competitive vocabulary, math and geography among others. The NSF is certainly where most Indian American Bee contestants begin their spelling career. 

The population of Indian Americans in the US is about 1%.  In contrast, the percentage of Indian American participants at the Bee is around 10%. When one looks at the percentage of Indian Americans in the final round of the Spelling Bees of the past decade, the percentage is overwhelmingly high. This year, six of the seven finalists were of Indian origin. 

What propels this ethnic subset of one-tenth of Spelling Bee participants into the top ten? The short (and rude) answer to that question is - It’s not the kid, stupid. It’s the parent!

When we examine attributes that are essential to succeeding at the Spelling Bee, we see that several of the key factors that apply to Indian American participants also apply to participants of other ethnicities. For example, a love of words, great discipline in study habits, many weeks, months if not years of practice, and competitiveness are not uniquely Indian. These attributes have propelled every winner of the Scripps Spelling Bee for the past 70 years. 

What makes 2nd. generation Indian American children uniquely suited to winning  the Spelling Bee is not just their personal attributes, but that of their coaches as well.  Most often, it is a parent who champions the quest for the title of Spelling Bee Winner. Interviews with past winners and contestants have revealed that moving up the ranks in Spelling Bee competitions is often a family event. Aside from traveling to regional (NSF) events as a family, every family member plays a role, especially the parent most involved in coaching the child. Take Jayakrishnan, from Fresno, CA who spends 4 hours a week coaching his daughter. He indicated, as reported by CNN, that when his daughter sometimes protests the futility of learning spellings since there’s spellcheck on the computer, Jayakrishnan insists: "Learn the root, the origin of a word. If you go through this at an early age you will grow as an individual and succeed in life."

In an event that requires a tremendous amount of time-investment on the part of parents/coaches, it is necessary to examine the attributes of these very parents and coaches.

Recent Indian immigrants, who grew up in India speaking multiple languages, among them English, are uniquely suited to be spelling coaches for English - regardless of their own proficiency in English. In my 2013 blog post, I wrote: 

“Historically, English has had influences from multiple languages (Latin, Greek, French etc.) and language families (Italic, Germanic, Romance…) as well as word-borrowings from dozens of languages (Arabic, Japanese, Yiddish, Spanish….) This aspect of English is particularly salient with regard to spelling. English spelling is challenging because of the many languages that have imposed their sound and spelling conventions onto English. Therefore, in theory, a person with experience with multiple languages would fare well when dealing with the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. Therein lies the Indian advantage.”

Aside from the coaches/parents being multilingual, many Indian American children are fluent or at the very least well-exposed to other Indian languages. There is incontrovertible evidence from psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics that being bilingual or even somewhat proficient in a second language has far reaching benefits on comprehension, memory, attention, creativity and even the delay of language degradation in later years. That it may have advantages in navigating the vagaries of English spelling is not a far-fetched supposition.

When done right, learning English spelling is in some ways comparable to learning a new language. When you know the origin of a word, you can apply the spelling rules of the language in question. Knowing that Scherenschnitte  (from this year’s Spelling Bee) is of German origin, and chateau is from French should immediately cue a savvy speller that the /sh/ sounds in the two words are sch- in German, and ch- in French. A child with experience in dealing with other languages besides English would have an enriched perspective compared to a monolingual child who has a limited frame of reference for the multiple spelling conventions in English. 

From my 2013 blogpost:

“A much-acknowledged feeling among foreign-language learners is that it was only when they learned a second or third language that they truly understood the grammar of their native tongue. Thus, the linguistic perspectives that one gets from learning a second or third language can never be obtained from the confines of a single language no matter how much one may immerse oneself in that single language.
The essence of this focus on knowing multiple languages is that when all other factors are equal, both multilingual learners and multilingual teachers are better at the language tasks they are aiming to accomplish compared to speakers of a single language.”

Cultural capital, in sociology, is defined as “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior,” (McLaren).

It is well-accepted that 2nd. generation Indian Americans may inherit (willingly or begrudgingly) the cultural capital of competitiveness and study habits  from their 1st generation immigrant parents. It is also accepted that these aspects of cultural capital hold Indian American participants in good stead while competing in the Spelling Bee. What is less accepted is the cultural capital that relates to language.

In an interview on, Katy Steinmetz spoke with Shalini Shankar, associate professor and sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist at Northwestern University, who researches the growth and proliferation of spelling competitions. When asked about the role of parents in the Spelling Bee, Prof. Shankar responds:

“The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But I don’t think that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them." 
(Emphasis added by me.)

That parents of all Spelling Bee winners invest enormous swaths of time helping their children prepare, is a given. However, I strongly disagree with Prof. Shankar’s assessment that the facilitation by Indian parents is no different from that of parents of other ethnicities and races. On the contrary, I would aver that the ethnicity of participants’ parents makes all the difference, especially if they are Indian. 

The Tiger-Mom phenomenon and high levels of competitiveness are not exclusively Indian attributes. They are present in many Asian ethnicities. However, one factor that separates Indians from other competitive Asian ethnicities is fluency, familiarity and comfort with speaking in English. This reason is often easily overlooked, however, and Indians are often not credited with this ease with English because we speak English with Indian accents. 

In 2013, when Indian Americans had a 6-year win at the Spelling Bee, and for the first time there was a widespread recognition in the media of the Indian advantage, a comment made by an expert in the field, an academic sociologist of Indian descent, no less, captures this failure to recognize English as a language of India. The academic said: "The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy….” 
What is really noteworthy here is that it was considered an exceptionality for an Indian to excel in some aspect of English, despite the fact that English has existed in India for 400 years.

Although we are multilingual, as a member of that small subset of Indians for whom English is the only language in which we are literate and proficient, we are yet to establish, in a widely-known way, that English is our language, accents notwithstanding. That is fodder for another blog post, but for the present, I take great pleasure in celebrating the fact that Indian Americans excel at the Spelling Bee while being coached by their heavily-accented parents! It is a small feather in that cap of establishing English as a bona fide language of Indians. 

I wrote in my 2013 blogpost that 2nd. generation Indian Americans carry the unique advantage of “having parents whose confidence in handling the challenges and peculiarities of English dates back several centuries. If there is such a thing as a collective experience with language, then Indians have one of the most impressive collective linguistic experiences. Navigating through multiple languages, English being one of them, is something that many Indians do, not as a laudable feat or accomplishment, but as an unremarkable aspect of everyday life in India.

The performance by Indian Americans at the Spelling Bee is a prime example of how past collective linguistic experiences can have tangible influences in present lives.