On the weekend of July 15th-16th, 2017, at the University of California – Riverside, a truly unique and international spelling bee took place. Sponsored by Spelling Bee of China (SPBCN), the third annual North America Spelling Champion Challenge (NASCC) drew 107 American and Chinese spellers to engage in healthy competition, make new international friends and connections, and, in the words of the bee’s slogan, enjoy “bridging worlds with words.” The champion would receive a grand prize of $2000 and a trip to Beijing, China, to enjoy sightseeing and compete in the Global Champion Spelling Competition of China (the GCSCC) in August.
The sizeable Chinese representation is one aspect that sets the NASCC apart from the other major bees in the United States – Scripps, the North South Foundation, and the South Asian Spelling Bees. Also, during the week immediately preceding the NASCC, Chinese students (as well as American students who are interested) are taught courses in spelling by teachers who are local to Riverside. On Friday, there is a closing ceremony and a spellers’ party and barbecue. Then on Saturday, the competition begins.
What also sets the NASCC apart from other bees is its structure. Instead of one or two long bees, there are a grand total of seven oral bees over the whole weekend. The field is divided up initially into three age groups, each of which holds their own semifinal bee. The top ten finishers in each of those bees then move on to their own final age group bee. This year, the top three finishers in the 3rd-4th grade and 5th-6th grade bees qualified for the championship finals, along with the top five finishers in the 7th-8th grade bee. So in all, 11 finalists from all age groups competed in the championship finals.
In particular, the Chinese students should be commended for their impressive showing. Anyone who has participated in a spelling bee knows the pressure involved. But the Chinese are competing not only in a foreign language, but also an entire different way of communicating; the Chinese write their language with ideograms representing whole words, while Anglophones use Roman letters that represent individual sounds. Moreover, many vowel sounds that English speakers take for granted do not exist easily in Chinese – if at all – making the task of deciphering a word into individual letters even more difficult. Now, let’s add to this the importance of saving face in Chinese culture. Missing a word in a spelling bee on a very public stage is not a way to save face. In my experience, this may be why some Chinese students simply choose not to spell outright when confronted with a difficult word – a phenomenon I have never seen amongst American spellers, and which I saw for the first time at my first NASCC in 2015. (This behavior echoes the harsh American saying, “Better to keep your mouth shut and make people wonder if you’re an idiot than to open your mouth and confirm their suspicions.”) But to be honest, I find no room for judgment in a spelling bee. Particularly for the Chinese students. I only find room for admiration, astonishment, and pride in their willingness and ability to spell in a language not their own. And if they miss a word, they haven’t lost face in the eyes of anyone watching.
This year, as the NASCC became more well-known to American spellers, it took on a dual identity: for spellers from China hoping to conquer as much of a second language as they could, and for spellers from America hoping to conquer as much of their native language as possible. As an indication of how much tougher the competition grew over the course of one year, last year, only the final round among 7th and 8th grade students – as well as the championship final round – left lists that all students had studied in advance; this year, all three of the final rounds as well as the championship finals went “out of the book.” In 2016, it took only 70 words to whittle the championship final spellers down to the winner – Sylvie Lamontagne, who also took 4th place at Scripps. This year, by the 70th word in the championship finals, seven spellers still remained, and it took another 37 words to declare the champion: Shourav Dasari, an 8th grader from Houston, Texas. In a moment that echoed and eclipsed his iconic mic drop on the word Mogollon at Scripps this year, Shourav heard his final word – anisakiasis – and spelled it with no question, no hesitation, and no lack of speed. Indeed, he had begun walking off stage before the judges could gather their thoughts, undrop their jaws, and declare his spelling correct.
Other spellers enjoyed their moments on stage, and had an equally appreciative audience. The runner-up, Shruthika Padhy, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, battled with Shourav for five perfect rounds before being felled by the tricky glycocoll. (Shruthika was also the winner of the 5th-6th grade finals, nailing storis for the win.) This year’s Spelling Bee of China National Spelling Bee champion Han Ai Lin had everyone rooting for her, until she fell in the tenth round of the 5th-6th grade finals, on neuropathy. She ended up in 6th place, and was unable to continue to the championship finals. But Rohan Rajeev, an 8th grader from Edwards, Oklahoma and this year’s runner up at Scripps, deserved special kudos. Rohan pushed Shourav to the limit in a nearly interminable endgame during the 7th-8th grade finals, going a flawless 17 rounds before officials mercifully declared co-champions. Then during the 10th round of the championship finals mere minutes later, Rohan met his match on the unfamiliar French geographic term Languedocian. His efforts earned him a tie for 4th place, the strong respect of the audience, and the longest ovation anyone received during the bee.
For American spellers participating, the NASCC ended on Sunday. But for the Chinese students, the fun had just begun – after all, they are in a foreign country, in California, with plenty of sightseeing to be done. Excursions after the bee tend to include fun destinations like Universal Studios and Disneyland. But they also include academic havens like Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley…places that can help whet the Chinese appetite for further academic success and excellence on an international level, should students decide to pursue it. All in all, the NASCC offers great opportunities for any students who wish to sharpen their brains in the realm of spelling and competition. As its website states, “the NASCC hopes that the spelling bee will serve as a way to gather the world’s outstanding young people to make use of the power of the word for the betterment of the world. We believe that an optimistic view of the future contributes strength to the youth of the world.”