The question, why Indian-Americans dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is a recent one. We are two years shy of a decade since Indian-Americans have been continuously winning the Spelling Bee. Further, 15 of the past 19 winners are of Indian origin. Indian domination at the Spelling Bee is now a well-known phenomenon.
Less well-known are the reasons for this spectacular streak of success by one ethnicity. There are multiple explanations for these winnings, but most explanations leave questions in their wake. Here is my offering of an answer that may be potentially more satisfying.
“India has a 400-year-old legacy of deciphering, interacting with, borrowing from, incorporating and finally adopting English as a language of its own. This linguistic legacy has far-reaching repercussions – perhaps as far as the E.W. Scripps Spelling Bee in America!”
Thus, I suggest that the children of recent Indian immigrants, i.e. second generation Indian-Americans are reaping the harvest of this historical-linguistic baggage, as evident in their domination in the Spelling Bee. My hypothesis includes the prediction that as an ethnic group, the high levels of successful performance by Indian-Americans will be restricted to only second generation children. Third and subsequent generations of Indian-Americans who do not have direct ties to India will not be a part of this phenomenal success.
An elaboration on this position follows:
The reasons typically attributed by media analysis of Indians’ success are:
• Exemplary study habits
Bee winners of all ethnicities report that they spend innumerable hours practicing spelling. Since many other ethnicities have exemplary study habits, this factor does not shed light on why Indians, in particular, excel at the Bee.
• Very high levels of competitiveness among Indians
This factor surely contributes to why there are a large number of Indian contestants at the regional and national levels. However, there are other ethnicities that are equally competitive. Thus, although this factor contributes to success, it does not clarify why children of Indians surpass children of Tiger Moms from other Asian
• Cultural attributes that ascribe high value to education and “brain-sports”
Being called a “nerd” in India is not particularly a pejorative term. Indians typically take pride in accomplishments that entail long hours of study. The Spelling Bee fits well into this category.
• Indians’ familiarity with rote-learning
Traditional Indian education has a centuries-long history in rote learning. Memorization is at the heart of much of traditional Indian education. Rote learning plays an integral part of learning spelling in English as there are more exceptions than rules.
• The North South Foundation
The North South Foundation is a non-profit organization that funds the higher education of under-privileged youth in India. During the early years of the NSF, the organizers were asked what they do for Indians living in the US, and thus began the practice of training Indian children to compete in the Spelling Bee.
The NSF is the sole reason why there are so many Indian-American participants at the Bee. The NSF holds regional competitions in its over 60 chapters across the US that introduce children from very young ages, as young as six years, to competitive spelling, competitive vocabulary, math and geography among others. The NSF is certainly where most Indian-American Bee contestants begin their spelling career.
The population of Indian-Americans in the U.S. is about one percent. In contrast, the percentage of Indian-American participants at the Bee is around 10 percent. When one looks at the percentage of Indian-Americans in the final round of the Spelling Bees of the past decade, the percentage is overwhelmingly high. This year, seven of the ten finalists were of Indian origin.
What propels this ethnic subset of one-tenth of Spelling Bee participants into the top ten? The short (and rude) answer to that question is, “It’s not the kid, stupid. It’s the parent!”
When we examine attributes that are essential to succeeding at the Spelling Bee, we see that several of the key factors that apply to Indian-American participants also apply to participants of other ethnicities. For example, a love of words, great discipline in study habits, many weeks, months, if not years of practice, and competitiveness are not uniquely Indian. These attributes have propelled every winner of the Scripps Spelling Bee for the past 70 years.
What makes second generation Indian-American children uniquely suited to winning the Spelling Bee is not just their personal attributes, but that of their coaches as well. Most often, it is a parent who champions the quest for the title of Spelling Bee Winner.
Interviews with past winners and contestants have revealed that moving up the ranks in Spelling Bee competitions is often a family event. Aside from traveling to regional (NSF) events as a family, every family member plays a role, especially the parent most involved in coaching the child.
Take Jayakrishnan, from Fresno, Calif., who spends four hours a week coaching his daughter. He indicated, as reported by CNN, that when his daughter sometimes protests the futility of learning spellings since there’s spell check on the computer, Jayakrishnan insists:
“Learn the root, the origin of a word. If you go through this at an early age you will grow as an individual and succeed in life.”
In an event that requires a tremendous amount of time investment on the part of parents/coaches, it is necessary to examine the attributes of these very parents and coaches.
Recent Indian immigrants, who grew up in India speaking multiple languages, among them English, are uniquely suited to be spelling coaches for English—regardless of their own proficiency in English.
In my 2013 blog post, I wrote:
“Historically, English has had influences from multiple languages (Latin, Greek, French etc.) and language families (Italic, Germanic, Romance…) as well as word-borrowings from dozens of languages (Arabic, Japanese, Yiddish, Spanish….) This aspect of English is particularly salient with regard to spelling. English spelling is challenging because of the many languages that have imposed their sound and spelling conventions onto English. Therefore, in theory, a person with experience with multiple languages would fare well when dealing with the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. Therein lies the Indian advantage.”
Aside from the coaches/parents being multilingual, many Indian-American children are fluent, or at the very least, well-exposed to other Indian languages. There is incontrovertible evidence from psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics that being bilingual or even somewhat proficient in a second language has far reaching benefits on comprehension, memory, attention, creativity and even the delay of language degradation in later years. That it may have advantages in navigating the vagaries of English spelling is not a far-fetched supposition.
When done right, learning English spelling is, in some ways, comparable to learning a new language. When you know the origin of a word, you can apply the spelling rules of the language in question.
Knowing that “Scherenschnitte” (from this year’s Spelling Bee) is of German origin, and “chateau” is from French should immediately cue a savvy speller that the “sh” sounds in the two words are “sch” in German, and “ch” in French. A child with experience in dealing with other languages besides English would have an enriched perspective compared to a monolingual child who has a limited frame of reference for the multiple spelling conventions in English.
From my 2013 blog post:
“A much-acknowledged feeling among foreign-language learners is that it was only when they learned a second or third language that they truly understood the grammar of their native tongue. Thus, the linguistic perspectives that one gets from learning a second or third language can never be obtained from the confines of a single language no matter how much one may immerse oneself in that single language.
The essence of this focus on knowing multiple languages is that when all other factors are equal, both multilingual learners and multilingual teachers are better at the language tasks they are aiming to accomplish compared to speakers of a single language.”
Cultural capital, in sociology, is defined as “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior,” (McLaren).
It is well-accepted that second generation Indian-Americans may inherit (willingly or begrudgingly) the cultural capital of competitiveness and study habits from their first generation immigrant parents. It is also accepted that these aspects of cultural capital hold Indian-American participants in good stead while competing in the Spelling Bee. What is less accepted is the cultural capital that relates to language.
Time correspondent Katy Steinmetz spoke with Shalini Shankar, associate professor and sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist at Northwestern University, who researches the growth and proliferation of spelling competitions. When asked about the role of parents in the Spelling Bee, Prof. Shankar responded:
“The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But I don’t think that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them.”
That parents of all Spelling Bee winners invest enormous swaths of time helping their children prepare, is a given. However, I strongly disagree with Shankar’s assessment that the facilitation by Indian parents is no different from that of parents of other ethnicities and races. On the contrary, I would aver that the ethnicity of participants’ parents makes all the difference, especially if they are Indian.
The Tiger-Mom phenomenon and high levels of competitiveness are not exclusively Indian attributes. They are present in many Asian ethnicities. However, one factor that separates Indians from other competitive Asian ethnicities is fluency, familiarity and comfort with speaking in English. This reason is often easily overlooked, however, and Indians are often not credited with this ease with English because we speak English with Indian accents.
In 2013, when Indian-Americans had a six-year win at the Spelling Bee, and for the first time there was a widespread recognition in the media of the Indian advantage, a comment made by an expert in the field, an academic sociologist of Indian descent, no less, captures this failure to recognize English as a language of India.
The academic said: “The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy….” What is really noteworthy here is that it was considered an exceptionality for an Indian to excel in some aspect of English, despite the fact that English has existed in India for over 400 years.
Although we are multilingual, as a member of that small subset of Indians for whom English is the only language in which we are literate and proficient, we are yet to establish, in a widely-known way, that English is our language, accents notwithstanding. That is fodder for another blog post, but for the present, I take great pleasure in celebrating the fact that Indian Americans excel at the Spelling Bee while being coached by their heavily-accented parents! It is a small feather in that cap of establishing English as a bona fide language of Indians.
I wrote in my 2013 blog post that second generation Indian-Americans carry the unique advantage of “having parents whose confidence in handling the challenges and peculiarities of English dates back several centuries. If there is such a thing as a collective experience with language, then Indians have one of the most impressive collective linguistic experiences. Navigating through multiple languages, English being one of them, is something that many Indians do, not as a laudable feat or accomplishment, but as an unremarkable aspect of everyday life in India.”
The performance by Indian-Americans at the Spelling Bee is a prime example of how past collective linguistic experiences can have tangible influences in present lives.
Nandini Ramakrishna was born in Bangalore, India and spent the first two and a half decades of her life in India. She learned to read with “Dick and Jane,” and continues to be a rather slow reader. For lack of a better plan, she got her undergraduate degree in Home Economics. Somewhere along the way, she learned a little German and French and fell in love with grammar. She got her MA in Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh and took a few dozen courses towards a doctorate in Speech-Language Pathology, which she never finished. Her many years as a student left her with a habit that she cannot kick, so she still takes courses every now and then, in languages or literature, and considers herself a lifelong student. She lives in Phoenix, AZ with her family and teaches English and Developmental Reading. When she is not teaching, conversing with her dogs or teasing her children, she writes.
Emily Harwitz is a journalist, photographer, and podcaster whose work focuses on making the outdoors a more inclusive place. Coming from a background in chemistry and ecology, Harwitz uses her knowledge to tell stories about the environment. She has written for many publications including High Country News, Hakai Magazine, Mongabay, Chemical & Engineering News, and more. Harwitz is an ambassador for Girls Who Click which is a nonprofit that empowers women to forge their paths in conservation photography. Her creativity does not stop there as Harwitz is also the host and producer of the Save the Redwoods League podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go.” Harwitz has explored a range of topics such as forest bathing, skateboarding, and building an inclusive community in the outdoors. Her stories do not stop there as Harwitz is always on the move looking for her next story. Continue reading to learn more about Emily Harwitz’s journey.
The term inclusion when it comes to the environment and outdoors does not always go together. How can we make the outdoors a more inclusive place?
The outdoors is inherently inclusive because, the moment you step outside, you’re outdoors, regardless of who you think you are. What needs to change is how we think about who is and isn’t “natural,” or what’s a “natural” way to behave. The natural way to be is however you are.
How have your personal experiences in nature affected the way you look at the rest of the world?
When I’m in nature, I feel the smallness of my being in the context of the bigness of the natural world. But the amazing thing is, when I slow down to look around, smell the air, touch the dirt, I feel like I’m a part of that nature, too. It’s really comforting to feel connected to something so vast outside myself. I no longer think it’s hoaky to say that appreciating nature’s beauty is spiritual for me. It just feels so good to look at water sparkling in the sun, or a dusting of purple and yellow flowers in a gently waving field of grass. Watching how animals and other creatures seem to flow through their landscapes is also a spiritual experience. How perfect they seem! And wow, I’m an animal, too!
This brings up some important questions: In what context do I exist that effortlessly? How can I foster that feeling for myself in my daily life? How can I foster that feeling for others? And how can I connect other people to that feeling of “I love being alive!”? That fuels so much of my work—wanting to share the feeling of what I experience in nature with others.
As you have covered many stories for various publications as a reporter, is there one that specifically calls out to you that you would like to expand upon?
I just wrote a story about biophobia, or the fear of nature, for Hakai Magazine and it got picked up by The Atlantic. I’m pretty stoked about that because this is a really important topic. The story’s about how certain aspects of modern life, like urbanization and the ensuing lack of daily nature experiences, are driving people to feel increasingly disconnected from nature. This not only impacts conservation, but also human health because nature provides so many benefits to physical and mental health. Here’s a good article introducing a growing body of research about the health benefits of nature immersion. Nature also provides the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, which I believe is an important thing to experience.
As someone who is in the field of environmentalism do you feel this influences you to follow a vegetarian or even vegan diet which is more supportive of animals from all walks of life?
Absolutely. Animals from all walks of life, I like that! I eat a pretty pescatarian diet and try to use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to look up the seafood I eat. I feel strongly about what I put in my body and where it comes from. Beyond the sustainability and health concerns of factory-farmed animals, I am deeply disturbed by the conditions animals are subjected to in factory farms. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. If you do know what I’m talking about and you’re still eating conventionally-raised factory-farmed animals, I’d urge you to take another look. We all exist in systems, though, and I know it can be hard for people to totally overhaul their diets—especially with things like ag-gag laws in the US blocking the spread of information about the conditions farm animals are raised in. It’s a privilege to even be able to consider where I’m getting my food from, considering the vast food deserts in the US and how inaccessible fresh produce is for many. So, my hope is for a growing collective consciousness about our food systems that eventually leads to regenerative agriculture that’s healthy for all of us on this planet.
Are there any brands we can support which push the message of inclusion?
How has Girls Who Click empowered you to get into the field of nature photography?
Girls Who Click connected me with an incredible filmmaking mentor, Dewi Marquis, who is also mixed Asian American. In addition to practical advice for film shoots, we’ve talked about work and life as women of color and the importance of listening to our own intuition during the creative process. Dewi’s involved with some great filmmaking organizations that I think the Brown Girl Magazine community would be interested in: Asian American Documentary Network, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, and Film Fatales.
As you have explored a range of topics on the Save The Redwoods League Podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go,” what are your plans for the newest season and how can we help support?
Thanks for this question! This new season is all about building community outdoors—hearing guests’ stories about how they started and grew their awesome community groups and organizations. My hope is that people can hear these stories and then go foster their own communities, wherever they are. All of our guests started with the desire to connect more with nature and others who can relate to their experiences as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ2S+ folks in the outdoors. If you identify with either or both of those categories, this podcast is for you! It’s by us, for us. The best way to support would be to listen, rate us 5 stars (if that’s how you feel), and share with friends. You can also follow the podcast on IG at @illgoifyougopodcast.
What is the Emily Harwitz starter kit for going camping or hiking?
I love this question! For hiking, aka a big walk outside, I always bring: a least one 32 oz. water bottle, a thermos of tea (oolong or green), a notebook or sketchbook, a pen or pencil. Sometimes I’ll bring a book that I don’t end up reading (how can I when there’s so much pretty nature to look at?), a tub of strawberries or other in-season fruit, my camera (currently shooting on a Sony alpha 6300 and a G200-600 lens). One of these days, I’m planning to bring my flute and a field recorder (Zoom H5). For going camping, I’d say: Make plans with a friend who already has lots of gear and likes to plan camping trips! Or there are lots of organizations that host camping trips you can sign up for. One day, I’ll go solo-backpacking, but I really enjoy camping with friends.
If you could go hiking with anyone in the world who would it be and why?
My Chinese grandpa who recently passed away. He loved nature, especially flowers, and I would love to go for a hike with to appreciate the beauty of nature together.
Who are your conservation heroes?
Personally: my grandmother who worked as lawyer to protect the environment in Florida, where I grew up. She introduced me to the whole world of conservation at an early age and I have so many joyful memories sifting through sargassum weed with her for tiny little shrimp and crabs, or looking for monarch caterpillars in the garden.
Thinking globally: Indigenous peoples around the world who steward and protect the lands they live on—including 80% of the world’s biodiversity. There’s growing recognition of this, and I hope to see more respect, protection, resources, and political action dedicated to Indigenous peoples who are doing this important work.
Do you feel that we will see a change and more representation in the outdoors?
Definitely! It’s already happening. Social media has actually been really beneficial in this regard because people can form their own communities online and share media and resources relevant to them. The outdoors industry is moving slower, but I’m seeing more initiatives to diversify marketing and such. The industry will have to adapt to include the people of the global majority if it wants to survive.
What do you see as the future for the outdoors?
Biodiverse (including humans!), inclusive, healthy, thriving, accessible experiences for adaptive skill levels. I am optimistic!
The sweet smell of petrichor, a cup of tea, and the redwoods. What more could you ask for?
True! Maybe an animal in the bushes nearby and a human friend to share it all with :)
Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.
“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.
It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.
Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.
Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy.
“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”
But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.
I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.
On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.
Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys.
But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.
The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.
Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments.
Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.
“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”
With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.
Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:
I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.
This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.
Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst.
Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider.
“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.
A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.