This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
“Preface to Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.
This piece in the NY Times reports that the latest U.S. Scripps National Spelling Bee co-champions are (again) from South Asia. Jairam Hathwar spelled “feldenkrais” & Nihar Janga spelled “gesellschaft,” arriving at a linguistic stalemate. There is no entry in the online OED for feldenkrais, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a way of training people’s movement to “increase . . . kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness.” Gesellschaft shows up in the OED with this brief entry: “A social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization.”
Since reading this article a couple of hours ago I have been pondering whether it’s possible to draw any coherent implications from the fact that the two winners “are the ninth consecutive victors of South Asian ancestry, and the 12th in 16 years.” One is tempted to make invidious comparisons between the South Asian immigrant community & American nativist English-only fundamentalists. And though that particular social configuration currently packs a certain political wallop, its arguments are so incoherent they ultimately tear themselves apart.
So why this run of victories by South Asian elementary & middle-school students? My best guess would be that Indian immigrant communities (in the US & elsewhere) preserve the very deep Indian understanding of language. Combine that with the aspirational immigrant respect for education & one can begin to see how this run of South Asian spelling bee victories might happen. The claim about Indian cultural understanding of language would need to be further developed & I’m not expert enough to do that in an adequate way. I would simply note that there is a 4000 year textual tradition that begins with the Vedas. For the first half of that period the “texts” were oral, but there was a highly developed form of “oral literacy” among the priestly class that included an elaborate technology of memorization & error checking. Early Buddhists, faced with preserving the discourses of Gotama, adopted & adapted this set of values & skills for their own purposes.
I assume that the boys’ parents are immigrants who grew up bilingual in English & an Indian language & that the boys have grown up speaking American English. I hope they are also speaking the Indian language(s) of their parents–from the boys’ first names probably Hindi. India is an example of bilingualism / multilingualism on steroids. No doubt the boys’ families created an educational / study environment based on these values. The parents themselves would very likely be prepared to draw on their own traditions to help their children prepare. And this would be true of a certain percentage of similar immigrant parents, thus the long string of victories.1
These two particular words raise a question about how children study for the highest level of spelling bee competition. I assume they simply memorize long lists of common & even not so common words, but at some point this method will reach a point of diminishing returns. At that point competitors will need to shift to phonetics, including the phonetics of words of non-English origin. Feldenkrais is a Ukrainian / Yiddish (?) surname; gesellschaft is borrowed from German. I doubt these were on the boys’ To Memorize list.
Yesterday was National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. The night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.
The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.
The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophy’s subsequent evolution:
The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as power’s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the “sacred” Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . . modernization.
At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacher’s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as one’s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:
It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community – hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.
The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally don’t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.
Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.
I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.
Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.
Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto
For certain people there comes a day
when they are called upon to say the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has
the Yes within him at the ready, which he will say
as he advances in honor, in greater self-belief.
He who refuses has no second thoughts. Asked
again, he would repeat the No. And nonetheless
that No–so right–defeats him all his life.
–C.P. Cavafy [Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn]