Canaries, Donuts and Dreams
Sunday night guest post on AAPI culture
Each Sunday night, we ask a thought leader to share a perspective in and around AAPI culture. This week, we’re delighted to have Nathan Reddy share his thoughts on how spelling bees relate to Indian American dreams.
(original post dated June 8, 2020)
Nathan Reddy recently graduated from Cornell with a BA in American Studies, with minors in Asian American Studies and Public Service Studies. At the same time of graduation, he had also completed the Cornell Public Service Center Scholars Program, the University’s service-learning program which he says, “personally made college worth it, intrinsically and because it inspired me to become an educator myself.” Nathan is associate editor of and a regular contributor to Community Works Journal, and is currently a Fellow with Community Works Institute (CWI).
Orange pill containers clutter my bedstand. Every midday I wrestle with all of them, making sure I take all five and a half because doctor says, with one half a pill going down right before bed. All are fighting the battle to make me “normal.” At least, normal enough. I’ve been at home for more than eight months now taking care of my mental health. Some days I’m enamored by all the possibilities of life, stretched out before me in an endless expanse. Maybe this will happen, or that. Good things. Dreams coming true. Other days I’m riddled with paralyzing anxiety and trenchant depression, wondering why I ever thought things could possibly get better. All I can see during those times are grueling, agonizing moments. And just like that, the days roll by. The months trudge on. A year on the horizon.
The other day I watched Netflix’s new documentary, Spelling The Dream with my family. It follows four buzzing, bustling Indian American kids who all share the wonderful dream of winning the Scripp’s National Spelling Bee. Each of them with their own, multi-tiered strategies to clench victory. That’s too much pressure. I could never. The hours spent hunched over the dictionary, being grilled by parents over and over and over again on not just the right spelling, but the language of origin, the definition, even the coded pronunciations.
It reminded me of when my own parents enrolled me in the 2010 MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee. Of course, there’s a bee just dedicated for South Asians, where parents can trade trade-secrets and eye each other suspiciously, and competitors can bond over being there. I was one of the older kids, but that didn’t stop me from getting out early. I misspelled “canary.” For some reason, I thought there were two n’s, and I confidently said them in succession. I was surprised when I got out; so were my parents. They were awkward about my premature exit. Just like that my mom’s dream of me winning the Big Bee was dashed. Nonetheless, we all went to Krispy Kreme afterwards to scarf donuts. I think my parents were eating their dreams, especially my mom, but I was just eating out of a sense of genuine relief and a love for donuts.
The documentary sought to explain the phenomenon of Indian American kids dominating the National Spelling Bee; it went all the way back to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. America opened its doors to highly skilled immigrants from India sold on the American Dream, who came and sacrificed so their kids could dream about winning the National Spelling Bee. Which is, all things considered, a very realistic dream. They have the resources to compete. Something I share with all those kids, the ones profiled in the documentary and even the winners of the National Spelling Bee of the past few decades is this prenatal history. What we don’t share, however, is the same life path. What went wrong with mine? Mental illness has thrown a wrench in what should be linear. I study as much as them, but my studying consists of reviewing and re-reviewing my own thoughts; I can ruminate for hours at a time. I’m so saddled with sadness and hopelessness sometimes that even taking a shower becomes a chore.
Even though we differ in what we can deliver, I dream, too. I dream of a life of independence, actively doing something I’m passionate about, being in that magical place everyone talks about where it doesn’t even feel like work. Pawan Dhingra makes a significant point in the documentary when discussing the specter of Indian “tiger parents” that the feature supposedly spotlights. What’s the difference between these parents, and those who enroll their students in sports at such a young age? At some point, he says, the child develops their own intrinsic motivation to achieve, falling in sync with their parents. He says not to underestimate the drive of the children themselves; ultimately, they are the ones taking on the work.
I am like them. I was thrust into a competition against my own mind that I didn’t ask for, but now I’m intrinsically motivated to make the most out of it. I’m doing the work, as much as I can. I’m taking my pills, walks when I can, speaking to my psychiatrist and therapist regularly. Getting myself involved in some writing and publishing work with Community Works Institute, recently having been made the associate editor of Community Works Journal, thank you very much.
Where do I go from here? Well, I did get a job that I will start soon. AmeriCorps, helping to tutor basic literacy to children who are a few grade levels below in reading. These children have decidedly different life circumstances than those of the cohort of Indian Americans profiled in Spelling The Dream. It’s interesting how clearly vocabulary can depict inequality in America. Those who can’t make out the difference between a noun and a verb, and the winners of the National Spelling Bee. Mental illness is a gruesome exercise, but I believe, in my heart of hearts, it has allowed me to see things differently. I’ve directed my incessant, anxious, near-constant stream of thinking to the problems of society, and my role in it. What I’ve come to at the age of twenty-four is this.
No dream matters inherently more than another. Why, exactly, is winning the National Spelling Bee better than reading at grade level? It’s not. Suggesting hierarchy ignores a plethora of factors outside of anyone’s control. So my own dream of managing my mental illness, and achieving a life of independence? Well, that’s perfectly alright with me. And the mini-dreams I tie with the children I will work with, to read on grade level? Those are exemplary goals too. In fact, I would consider this work a central aspect of managing my mental illness. It will give me a sense of purpose, an outlet to escape my own, desperately individualizing mind. Maybe, then, I don’t want to achieve a life of thrilling independence, but rather, utter dependence on each other to make all of our dreams come true.
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