Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Diverse Face of American Excellence

An article a few weeks ago in the Washington Post made an observation and asked a rhetorical question, specifically "Indian Americans dominate the National Spelling Bee. Why should they take abuse on social media for it?" The article touched on the uncanny success of Americans of Indian descent in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, some theories around why this demographic has fared so well in this competition and the abhorrent backlash from a racist segment of American society who have found their success worthy of angst as opposed to pride, with such comments as:
  • “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN”
  • “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail”
  • “We need an american to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians”
  • wow that blows the spelling bee ends with a tie thats so friggin un-American no wonder the kids that won it are Indian
  • Nothing more American than a good spelling bee.. Oh wait all the Caucasians are eliminated
I'll pause for a second and take us to the world of sports, where the United States Men's Soccer Team stunned a strong Netherlands team 4-3 in Amsterdam in a recent "friendly" match. For those who are not terribly versed in the sport, a win over Netherlands on their home pitch is quite a feat. For all of our American athletic prowess, success has eluded the National Team for decades, and there's a new tide of optimism with the leadership of Jurgen Klinsmann, a former German star player and coach who is a permanent resident in California, where he lives with his American-born wife and children.

As the National Team has shown some signs of stark improvement, it's been clear that it's benefit from a infusion of talent from overseas. For the World Cup squad in 2014, Klinsmann heavily leaned on talent like Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler and Julian Green. That might not sound like a big deal, until you realize that Jones, Brooks, Johnson, Chandler and Green are all German-Americans, born from American servicemen fathers and German mothers who spent most of their lives in Germany. But when it comes to soccer, they proudly wear the red, white and blue.

For the most part, nobody has questioned the legitimacy of their team membership. Nobody seemed to gripe about a dual-citizen born in foreign land taking a precious team spot away from a young lad born and bred in the heartland of the United States. For Americans glued to their television sets last summer, nobody bothered checking the national origin of the player wearing the U.S. kit as they streaked down the sideline with the ball. They simply rooted for the players because they knew they were playing for "their" team. 

How is the case of the Indian-American Spelling Bee champions different than that of the German-American Men's National Soccer Team? I'd speculate that race is a key factor. The fact of the matter is that despite the racial demographics in this country, the prevailing perception remains that to be American is to be "white" or maybe "black" or Hispanic. East Asian? South Asian? Not quite. I'll give an example how I know this is true. I can still encounter people in this country who will ask me (despite being born in New Jersey and speaking perfect English) "Where are you from?" I'd speculate that not too many of my Caucasian friends get that. It's not ill-willed or malicious in the least - but it does hint at an implication that because I'm not Caucasian, I'm not from "here".

Another more innocuous factor is that while the Men's National Soccer Team is a team effort representing the nation, the Spelling Bee is an individual pursuit of glory. I can appreciate that. But for a country that allegedly prides itself in the spirit of hard work and pursuit of excellence, the rancor seems awfully misplaced. When Scorsese, De Niro and Pacino win Academy Awards, where's the anger that Italian-Americans are cornering the Oscar market? Let's call a spade a spade. It's racism, plain and simple.

But I remain hopeful. A century and a century and a half ago, Italian-American and Irish-Americans also faced hostility as outcasts, victimized by nativist sentiments. But eventually, they became incorporated and accepted as part of the mainstream (yes, one can argue that as they became part of the mainstream, they became part of the oppressive class which demonized the next class of immigrants, but that's for another discussion). I have hope that there will be a time where everyone will look upon and celebrate the success of Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans and all "hypenated" Americans as, well, simply American achievements, period.

Someday in the future, this will be the immediate instinctive reaction to the aforementioned tweets:
  • “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN”
  • “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail”
What are you talking about? You can't get more American than "Hathwar" and "Sujoe". Just like "Cho", "Feinberg", "O'Malley", "Spano", "Wong", "Keller", "El-Aminu" and "Smith".
  • “We need an american to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians”
Great news! Sriram and Ansun are from New York and Texas, respectively, which are both in the United States of America. You may be looking at an incorrectly printed program which lists their residences as Hyderabad and Delhi.  
  • wow that blows the spelling bee ends with a tie thats so friggin un-American no wonder the kids that won it are Indian
Agree with you that a tie can be like kissing your sister. But I can think of few virtues as American as hard work, which these American kids certainly modeled.
  • Nothing more American than a good spelling bee.. Oh wait all the Caucasians are eliminated
Don't get the relation between your two sentences. In another observation signifying nothing, many of the other American subgroups, including East Asians, Arab, Hispanic and Black Americans have also been eliminated. But hey, since all of the competitors are American (despite your ability to recognize as such), we're guaranteed an American win! 'Murica!


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What Kids Teach Us About Incentives

Taking the training wheels off of a kid's bike is a rite of passage of sorts. It marks a milestone in physical aptitude and also serves as a life analogy of any skill which requires practice and perseverance to master. There's a great deal of trepidation and hesitation before taking those training wheels off, and convincing a child of the upside of doing so is a challenge in of itself. For my two daughters, they had wallowed in their training-wheel state much longer than necessary and I was prepared to do something about it.

My youngest daughter celebrated a birthday about a month ago, and I came up with the idea of getting her a new bicycle. Even with her small stature, she was ready to graduate from her ten-inch bike and I thought it would complement all of the clothes she had received from her grandparents.

On the day of her birthday, I told her about my gift idea and on the spur of the moment, came up with a slight twist.

"Carissa, mommy and I are going to give you a bicycle for your birthday and you can pick out the one you want. But we want you to be able to ride without training wheels on your old (smaller) bike before we give you your new one. Okay?"

She paused for a second, and to my surprise asked, "Can I ride without training wheels today?" Obviously, she didn't want to waste one minute in delayed gratification in getting her new bike. With a brand new bike ready for the taking, she was going to get master riding on two wheel, skinned knees and elbows be damned.

So that afternoon, Carissa and I got ready to head out to the nearby school parking lot to practice two-wheel bike riding when her older sister asked us what we were doing. When told that her younger sister was going to bike without training wheels, Sophia bolted to attention and insisted that she join, as well, and that I remove the training wheels from her own bicycle. Of course, what older sister could live with the humiliation riding on trailing wheels behind a little sister who cycled freely without them?

In that parking lot, I've never seen such motivation and drive from my daughters, as they worked to gain momentum and balance themselves. My son and I ran with and pushed our daughters back and forth as they steadied themselves. They fell on occasion, but within an hour or so, they had reasonably gotten the hang of it. I was a proud dad,

I also enjoyed witnessing a reminder of human nature and how we respond to incentives. After failing to cajole my daughters into abandon their training wheels time after time, they ultimately responded to two things. Carissa was jolted into action with the promise of new bike and Sophia was jolted into action by the spirit of competition, perhaps mixed in the fear of humiliation of having her younger sister mastering this skill before she did.

In many ways, this is the the often seen analogy of the "carrot" (positive reinforcement) and the "stick" (negative reinforcement). Every day in my life, I'm driven to do things because of the promise of what I may find at the top of the mountain which I'm climbing. I'm also driven to do things because I fear the consequences of failure. And like Sophia, I am prone to using others as a measuring stick. The spirit of competition has the potential to be destructive, no doubt, but when used right, can be an effective source of drive and energy in the pursuit of things which are good and virtuous.