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U.S. National Spelling Bee Champion Was Born in India but His Experience is All American


The National Spelling Bee is a peculiarly American institution, where school children aged 9 to 14 take turns spelling aloud English words of increasing and sometimes ludicrous difficulty. Yet the champion of this year's competition, held earlier this month in Washington, was Anurag Kashyap, an exuberant 13-year-old whose parents are immigrants from India. In this edition of New American Voices, Mr. And Mrs. Kashyap talk about their son, and their life in America.

The Kashyap family came to North America -- initially to Canada, where Mr. Kashyap had a post-doctoral fellowship to study organic chemistry -- when Anurag was just 18 months old. When he was three, the family moved to the United States. Mr. Kashyap says that although his son's heritage is Indian, his experience is all American.

“He has no Indian experience, either in terms of language, or in terms of cultures, except what he gets from his [parents] or maybe sometimes TV movies. So in terms of language, he did not pick it up. English became his first language," says his father. "And culture - well, he eats both Indian food and American food, and clothes-wise there is absolutely no problem. And I think he probably has more American friends. In the school he is quite popular, and many people like him, I would say he gets along very well.”

Language being no barrier, Anurag early on showed an interest in words. His father says he was about nine years old when the competitive spelling bug bit him.

“I believe that he started quite early. We used to go to the library, and we used to pick up - because we don't have Hindi books here, right? - so we picked up English books for children, and he was reading," he notes. "I have a feeling that it started when he was in fourth grade, and he participated in a competition, and being a fourth grader he beat all the fifth graders in the school. And he went to the regional competition, and he came in third in the county. So it's my guess that was the starting point.”

From then on, Anurag participated in various local and regional spelling competitions. Last year he entered the National Spelling Bee for the first time and tied for 47th place. This year he beat out 272 other contestants by quickly and confidently spelling the word appoggiatura (an ornamental music note) in the 19th round. Anurag's father says his son's intense interest in spelling is his own; his parents didn't push him into it.

“Absolutely no. In fact, sometimes we try to stop him," he says. "We did not discourage, we always encouraged - learning anything is always good. But we did not push him, that 'Oh, you have to do only spelling.' Because as you will find, he is a well-rounded student in the school, he has contributed in all the subjects almost equally.”

Mrs. Archana Kashyap offers her own view of their son's broad range of interests. “After studying he plays video games and he likes to play tennis very much," she says. "He's not a very good player, but he likes to play, he has fun with that.” Anurag is the Kashyaps' only child.

Mr. Kashyap, who earned a PhD in organic chemistry in India, joined the faculty of Purdue University in the Midwestern state of Indiana after immigrating to the United States. Two years ago, he moved his family to the San Diego area in California, where he found a job with a large biotech company. Chandra Kashyap says that his professional environment was a big help in smoothing the transition to life in a new country.

“Because I came as an academician, you know, I was in an academic environment," says Mr. Kashyap. "A professor has his lab group involved, so I think I found some friends, and we have some Indian friends, too, who have PhDs from the same institutions, so we never felt that we are isolated or we are far.”

Mrs. Kashyap, who is a stay-at-home-mom, also had few problems with adjustment. “Just that I missed my family there, because I moved here," she notes. "And adjusting, it takes time. But other than that, everything is fine.”

Like many immigrants, the Kashyaps believe that the greatest advantage to life in America can be found in the opportunities it offers. As Chandra Kash yap says, everybody has the chance to fare well here, if they have skills and work hard. He looks forward to seeing his son take advantage of these opportunities to achieve his full potential. As yet, the boy has no firm plans for the future.

“He's in eighth grade right now, so there is no specific or special subject where he can concentrate right now and go [ahead]," notes Mr. Kashyap. "I think we have to watch for another two-three years, when he takes advanced courses, and see how he performs, and that will determine what he will go for. If he has the talent and the determination, if he works hard and he's honest in his discipline, probably he can get to where he wants to go.”

Anurag certainly does not lack determination. Over the past two years he studied more than 100,000 words to prepare for the national spelling bee. And he found lots of help along the way, from a spelling coach at school, and various Internet resources, to a wide network of computer friends who quizzed him constantly using on-line instant messaging. A footnote to the Kashyap's story: all three finalists in this year's National Spelling Bee were children of Indian immigrants

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