The American Dream

I finished watching Spellbound this past weekend with the wife.

It’s quite amazing watching some of these kids, as young as 9, prepare for the Scripps Natiaonal Spelling Bee with such intensity and focus.

However, I’m mixed on the significance of memorizing large numbers of
words.  On one hand, it does excercise the capacity of the still
maturing brain, it does help kids understand the process of memorizing information, it does help develop a strong work ethic.  On the other hand, I don’t know if it has any intellectual value.  To memorize formulas for physics is one thing.  To understand the formulas is a different story. 

Despite all that spekticism, I really liked the point that Rajesh Kadakia, one of the speller’s father makes:

“I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard.  But what is valuable in life that is easy to achieve?”

But in any case, perhaps the more important aspect of the film that I
took away from my viewing is what America symbolizes to the rest of the
world.  Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not some chest thumping,
flag waving, patriot.  In fact, I’m probably middle of the road in
what I think of this country as a whole (or at least where we are
currently), but I was really re-awakened to the fact that America is land
of dreams by two segments in the film (it’s one of those things that
you probably think about once in a while, but when you hear it again,
you’re reaction is always along the lines of “Wow, that’s soooo true”, even though you’ve come to the same conclusion at some previous point in time).

As the spellers are introduced to us, one by one, we are also
introduced to the different cultural backgrounds of each family. 
It’s truly amazing to see how the parents, family, and teachers in each
vignette run the gamut of skin color, attitudes towards education, and
their approach to supporting their kids.

Perhaps the best soundbites to come out of these subjects is from Mr. Kadakia.

“I’m so indebeted…to this country, which will accept a stranger
[to] come in and give them this opportunity.  America is just

A little later, as Rajesh is showing us around his second home, he says:

“There is no way that you can fail in this country.  That is
one guarantee in this country: if you work hard, you will make
it.  And that’s not existent in the rest of the world.”

This struck me again the other night as I was talking to my wife
about how badass my mom is when I think about it.  When we first
moved here from Taiwan, she was a single mother, taking care of two
kids, attending grad school full time, and working part-time to pay for
it!  We used to live in a tiny little 1 bedroom apartment and
literally posessed only junk (my mom loved garage sales). 
Thinking back, it’s truly amazing how determined my mother is. 
You would never be able to tell by the packaging (my mom is a somewhat
tiny woman), but my mother is just exploding with determination to do
whatever she sets her mind to.

I’m tempted to think that this is a largely immigrant way of
thinking.  Of her second trip to the spelling bee after being
eliminated in an early round the previous year, one of the young
spellers, Nupur Lala, says:

“You don’t get any second chances in India the way you do in America.”

It’s true.  And I think that most people take this for
granted.  The immigrant mind feeds off of this second chance in
life and
utilizes it to excel.  Perhaps Angela Arenivar’s story (the first
speller we are introduced to) symbolizes this more so than any of the
other spellers in the documentary (her father being an illegal Mexican
immigrant who doesn’t speak English).

At this point, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this 😀 but there was one other statement that caught my attention:

“I’m always thrilled to see any child come in who is from India because I know they are gonna have a good work ethic and the are gonna be good students.”

Being the spouse of a teacher, I can tell you that this is a
general attitude (be it good or bad) that teachers have towards Asian
students in general.  My wife expects Asian kids to do well without the goading and prodding that most kids require; she’s excited when
she sees an Asian name on her class list in the summer.  Now,
being Asian myself, and having met Asians of all walks, I can tell you
that there are stupid Asians as well (maybe I’m one of them :-D), and I
consistently point this out to people who make the point to me that
Asians are statistically smarter than other races.

Seeing as how I can’t seem to string my thoughts together today, I
think I’ll just end this post here.  It is the immigrant working
class, driven by The American Dream,
that has built America to what it is today.  As we move forward,
we need to keep sight of this ideal and realize that The American Dream
is not a right owed to any of us, but a privilege for which we must
continually strive to attain.

If nothing else, this movie serves as a reminder that our situations
are never as dire as we think them to be. America is truly the land of
opportunity, be it financial or academic; however, one must always be prepared to work hard to
achieve success.

Sidenote: If you search around the web, you can find various tid-bits about the spellers.  Some of them even have blogs. It’s intersting to see their perspective and find out how the film affected their lives.

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