There Is No Test Prep for Sibling Rivalry
"Useful Sister" by Weike Wang, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Once, someone who claimed to have a knack for sibling order told me I was an only child. I am not. I am an older sister to a younger sister, a fact that is as ingrained in my sense of self as anything I am or will ever be. It’s also the precondition with which I read Weike Wang’s pointed and roguish story, “Useful Sister.”
“Useful Sister” is the story of a middle child, that overlooked peace-broker caught between the golden, overachieving eldest—Beth, in this case—and the adored but unsupervised baby, Veronique. Added to these dynamics, the sisters in Wang’s story were raised with a “tome of well-meaning and honest but baffling and completely contradictory advice” that was “immigrant in nature,” and from which Veronique was exempt: “Blend in just enough but also aim for the top;” “stand out too much and you will inevitably be cut down;” “save and live frugally so you can be rich.”
“I hated being the middle sister,” the narrator confesses, “a child of immigrants, a Chinese American woman, even in modern times, which was still better than any time before. I hated having to be grateful. I hated contradictory advice.”
On the one hand, “Useful Sister” affirms the received knowledge about middle siblings: that they don’t get enough attention as children and are damaged permanently by it. The unnamed middle sister, our narrator, is both brittle and needy, constantly seeking Beth’s approval and striving to distinguish herself from Veronique. The middle sister is funny but her biting jokes are made in private; she’s learned over the years how to entertain herself.
But stereotypes of sibling order fail to capture the rivalries, alliances, shifting hierarchies and inescapable bonds that persist, between sisters especially. Triangulation here is key. My sister and I have our inside jokes and the old roles we revert to when we argue, but it’s a one-to-one exchange. A back and forth. When you add a third, the dynamic becomes three dimensional, more volatile. Reading Wang’s writing, I saw an entire world of sibling rivalries open up. Two sisters are a relationship, three sisters are a society, a social order unto themselves.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-chief, Recommended Reading
There Is No Test Prep for Sibling Rivalry
“Useful Sister” by Weike Wang
Our youngest sister’s name unnerves me, and unlike Beth and I, she was not given another. By their third child, our Chinese parents had mellowed, and, wishing to save this child some trouble, deemed a Chinese name unnecessary to avoid the perpetual questions of, how do you spell that name, how do you say it, and, what does it mean. We didn’t know why our parents chose “Veronique” when our family had no history being French. But unmarked by an ancestral Asian name, Veronique was free to do as she pleased. Notably, she was exempt from our parents’ teachings, which were immigrant in nature and amounted to a tome of well-meaning and honest but baffling and completely contradictory advice.
Blend in just enough but also aim for the top.
Stand out too much and you will inevitably be cut down.
Save and live frugally so you can be rich.
Since Veronique was exempt, she turned out, by Beth’s and my standards, not quite right. She wavered between average and terrible in school. She ran with the popular people who summered at vineyards and on freshwater lakes. Pierced ears were out of the question for us, but since adolescence, hers have been lined with tiny holes.
Perhaps my husband has always had opinions about my sisters, I just pretended not to hear them. I was still wooed by his presence, that I had found a husband, especially one with bone structure and shiny, not-a-speck-of-dandruff black hair. But one day, when I had been complaining to him about Veronique, he told me that I was the right balance of both.
He said Beth angered too easily and, as stunning as Veronique was, he would be bored with her after a year.
It occurred to me then that we had been married almost a year; our anniversary was coming up.
You’re the right balance of both, he repeated, a fact that I knew, but this was the first time I’d heard it from him. The mention of balance reminded me of zhōng yōng, or the Confucian belief that one should strive for moderation, should stay in the middle path, to achieve the golden mean. Confucius must have later passed his beliefs to a fairytale writer. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Not too hot and not too cold, a girl in constant search of porridge that was just right.
My mind had a tendency to jump, and Beth often said that I liked to jump to conclusions and wind myself up without cause.
So, from brown bears in a fairy tale, my mind naturally went to panda bears. A panda bear I would steal and try to raise as a pet. A panda bear ameliorated my parents’ homeland, a place of oppression and conformity, of blinding nationalistic pride, robotic children, and severity, or so I was told. But how could a place so severe produce an animal of universal adoration and curiosity? Like the platypus but furrier, arguably the laziest mammal in the world, too lazy to even camouflage itself properly, or to mate. A panda’s main form of exercise was to eat. A panda had few natural predators or concerns. An image of that black and white bear could melt my heart and, momentarily, the trouble I felt about being a Chinese American woman was gone. This trouble included but was not limited to the tome of contradictory advice, not just from parents and from friends of my parents who were also parents, but from society at large, something to the effect of being white-adjacent or not quite white enough but neither black nor brown, still you had to find your place as neither the quiet one nor the dragon lady nor the concubine, but somewhere in between. Lastly, this trouble came from being a middle sister, and then feeling doubly or triply invisible but also perpetually in a race, that I could not be my own person, because if I could not do anything first or last, then whatever I did would feel borrowed, thus small.
As of last month, Veronique was in Seoul. Before Seoul, Paris and Marrakech. She was studying tango, then watercolors, how to bake a crispy baguette. In Seoul, she was learning about skin and ways to make hers look like glass. Her morning routine took an hour, her night routine two more, and in between she had to lie down. She could not exert herself or work, either produced too much sweat. Salt from sweat undid the creams, it drew out moisture and thus a woman’s youth. Veronique was twenty-six and unmarried. Like any good dough, good skin needs to rest.
What’s next? I asked Seoul Veronique on our sisterly group chat.
She talked about acting, doing commercials at first and then transitioning into serious films that could win awards. Having never acted before, she was considering taking a class.
I don’t want to waste my life, you know, she said.
I know, I said, and encouraged her to take the class.
But who knows, she said.
That was Veronique in six words. You know, I know, who knows.
Beth didn’t text the group much anymore. She was busy running her own company and pregnant with her first child. She was an overseer, the leader of the pack. I sent her many edible gifts, and, in our own private chats, rows of yellow prayer hands. I did worship Beth, and both Veronique and I looked to her for final say.
Because no one had told me otherwise, I believed Veronique to be in Seoul, applying jelly masks and lying down, when I received a text from her about being in town, in Boston where my husband and I lived. I still didn’t believe it until there was a knock on the door, and, half expecting a panda bear, I opened it to find Veronique.
Wow, I said. It was universally recognized that out of us three, she looked the most white. Being beautiful in Asia was that easy, and her time in Seoul had further whittled down her waist and enlarged her breasts. I missed my baby sister but was reminded again of what it was like to have her in the room. My tick of rapidly patting my collarbone returned.
Child Veronique had been gullible. It was easy to convince her of anything—nail polish poisons the mind; big breasts lead to cancer. But my image of Veronique as a child no longer matched what I was seeing. She possessed more womanhood than I did, and the cognitive dissonance overwhelmed me.
Openly, my husband flirted. He greeted her with a fist bump and then asked about Paris, misremembering that the flight had been from Seoul. He and I visited Paris once to do the usual touristy things. What’s showing at the Pompidou now? he asked. How’s the terrine de canard?
Veronique didn’t correct him about Paris and carried on as if all of it made sense. Her long hair was wound up in a hefty bun, her fingernails were acrylic and bright yellow. Soon, my husband went away, bored or having run out of Parisian expertise to share. By the time I got out the peach iced tea and opened a family-size bag of barbeque-flavored chips, Veronique had an announcement to make. As she announced, she turned her wrists in the air and bounced up and down a little, like both a large-breasted woman and a child. Thanks to Beth, she was moving to Boston long term. She had found an entry-level job here and a place in Beacon Hill.
Beth? I said.
Yes, we spoke, she continued. When she was in Seoul, Beth had called and questioned Veronique about her life. At first Veronique was resistant, but they kept calling each other and eventually worked it out.
Worked what out? What exactly was it? Up until that moment I assumed that Beth only called me. I couldn’t conceive of Beth and Veronique holding a discussion without me, or being sisters on their own. I admit to the narcissism. It was a monstrous feeling that I could not shake.
I want to try office work, Veronique said. I’ve never given it a fair chance. But Beth helped me see that what I truly feared was liking office work too much. I feared that I would get sucked into its dynamics and politics, the artificial sense of productivity. But now I can see myself enjoying reports. I want to get water from a water cooler.
Tomorrow, Veronique would be starting at Beth’s company that, unbeknownst to me, was about to expand. Supply was to quadruple and a headquarters had opened downtown, by the government center.
Blindsided, I mouthed the words, what the fuck is going on. The technique I’d read about online—first form the words with your mouth and if they still seem acceptable, then you can say them aloud. What the fuck felt inappropriate, so I told Veronique that Beth never mentioned a headquarters, and it seemed a large enough topic to bring up.
Maybe she did, Veronique said. You do have some trouble with listening.
I said I didn’t think so.
You’re patting your collarbone again, she said.
So, we worried that you would overreact. But we also didn’t want you to feel left out.
When Veronique began to talk like this, I knew that Beth was up to no good. I kept patting my collarbone and added that I’ve never felt left out nor did I overreact.
Veronique then expressed her excitement for office work again, her desire to reinvent herself.
Don’t we all want to be taken seriously? she asked, which was something Beth liked to say when she thought the other person was on the verge of becoming a joke.
Veronique ate more barbeque chips, and I only encouraged her. My hope was that if she kept going, her slightly thicker waist would return.
Beth’s company sold test prep books for a national exam that all college-bound students had to take. Given the collective immigrant faith in meritocracy, a faith that was also a burden, she and I had excelled in school and on tests. After college, then grad school, there were no more tests to take, no more prep to be done, and that bothered Beth enough to quit her decent but unexciting accountant job to start a company of her own.
By sheer coincidence, though at times I couldn’t even believe it myself, I worked for the testing firm that wrote the national exams that all college-bound students had to take. Like Beth, I couldn’t extricate myself from test prep, a world where so much of my identity had formed and worth been assessed. I was part of a large quality control unit that reviewed test questions and pushed them along to be approved. A question went through rounds of checks, and there were hundreds of questions, allowing for an excess number of meetings. I enjoyed office work because I enjoyed busy work. After one deadline passed, two more took its place. I felt Herculean and joyous in my efforts, however pointless they were.
I never forwarded any official material to Beth, no emails or texts, there was to be no paper trail. But I had a photographic memory, and in person or over phone, from a restricted number, I could scroll through test questions like a Rolodex and recite them. Whenever I did this, I felt our sister bond strengthen. Throughout childhood, she warned me to stay out of her way. She didn’t admire my husband, who on several occasions she’d described as daft. Beth’s judgement was hard to fend off until I finally became useful to her and she no longer harangued me about my choices. She called me her little consultant. She thanked me for my time.
After Veronique finished the potato chips and left, I didn’t text Beth right away and continuously. I didn’t call and hang up or call and leave a message. I think I hoped the knowledge of whatever Veronique had said to me would wash off, and within a week, exactly seven twenty-minute showers later, it did. I put aside my narcissism and Beth’s betrayal. I went back to my belief that our baby sister was still in Seoul.
But then on our next Rolodex call, Beth began to praise Veronique. Since coming to work for her, Veronique fit in well with their gorgeous new corporate space. The space had high ceilings, exposed brick, free beer, coffee, and cucumber water throughout the day. The entire team loved her and vice versa, a team of coders and data scientists, five service agents, a pool of interns who took these tests regularly, on payroll, as fake students, to assess seasonal change.
We’ll be holding more events here, Beth said. Receptions and cocktail hours, maybe even a dinner or two. We’re looking for some local art to put on the walls.
From then on, the company change was obvious. Beth even threw the phrase “boutique test prep” into the mix.
Because studying is so boring, she said. No one likes doing it, and larger companies lack a certain je ne sais quoi. Which is where Veronique comes in, she added.
Somehow Beth and I had skipped a step. She hadn’t told me about hiring Veronique or the new headquarters, nor had I expressed my annoyance at her for having withheld the news. Yet somehow, happily ever after, we were on the other side.
We’re considering promoting her, Beth said.
Ok, I said, but not very nicely.
Said another way, we are promoting her. As of next week, she’s the new Chief Marketing Chair.
Ok, I said, even less nicely and followed by a groan.
It’s a small promotion, Beth explained. Or one might even say a trial. There’s certainly a chance she could be un-promoted if the working relationship doesn’t pan out.
A third ok was overkill, I thought, so we were both quiet for a few seconds. Then she said, don’t think you’re not doing something hugely important as well.
I formed the words first and deemed them acceptable to say. Beth, I hate when you use double negatives. It’s like being thrown a knot to untie.
The elevator in our building was too small and slow. Yet more tenants preferred it, even when going to floors like two, three, and four. One thing my co-workers liked about me was that I didn’t feel strongly about anything, I didn’t complain or emote unnecessarily, I didn’t hold grudges or care about quid quo pro. Whenever these traits were applied to me in a performance review, painted on as if with a fine oriental brush, I would smile and nod. Yes, that was me. But I had stronger opinions than I let on and hated more things than people knew. I hated standing in the elevator with people, for instance. I hated being the middle sister, a child of immigrants, a Chinese American woman, even in modern times, which was still better than any time before. I hated having to be grateful. I hated contradictory advice.
On a calm and collected day, I didn’t hate any of these things, I just found them impossible to manage all at once.
Yesterday, I stood next to a man holding two boxes of pepperoni pizza and a box of buffalo wings. Today, I was stuck in between a double-decker stroller with toddlers and a laundry basket with visibly stained clothes. To make it to the sixteenth floor, I had to close my eyes and think about something soothing. Yesterday I thought about pandas bears, but today I thought about test prep.
Some say standardized tests are aptitude driven, you either are a genius or are not, and to over prepare as some groups do defeats the test’s purpose of assessing the innate. Was there truth behind this reasoning? Or a need to discount those who had gained entry, through scores, to places they weren’t supposed to be. Certainly, I’d overprepared, but besides aptitude, tests can measure determination and hard work. They can move us closer to, or at least give the illusion of, the American dream. The American dream is the immigrant dream, and the immigrant dream is your parents’ dream, which over time becomes yours—it’s not a choice, so you have to do well on the tests, on all the tests, to prove that you’re not a mistake. Here was where truly great test prep could help. Truly great test prep was meant to be tedious, but, in that tedium, you could feel ascendant. Hence why helping Beth’s company was important to me. I wanted her materials to be the best, so that her students could take on a dubious system and then make the world a better place. At least, I thought that was our goal, hers and mine together, but now I wasn’t so sure.
Elevator sounds. Elevator dings. The stroller I was pressed against left. A dirt bike rolled in to take its place. I pounded my collarbone and softly gasped for air.
A week later, I was at my office’s water cooler, one finger on the red tab for hot water and one finger scrolling through my phone, when I came across Veronique’s face on a new social media account that Beth’s company had invited me to like.
My sister’s skin was still blemish free and glass like. Her hair was ironed straight, the lighting professional. She wore a low-cut green sweater, a plaid mini skirt, and glasses, which Veronique in real life didn’t need. She looked much younger than twenty-six and could’ve passed for sixteen. She was holding one of Beth’s new books, flipping through it and smiling as if none of the content was obscure. I swiped to another picture of her sitting in a chair by a desk, head focused and tilted down, a pen in her flirtatious mouth, a second low-cut sweater, the fake glasses folded and casually tossed on the desk.
Real-life Veronique rarely used books or desks. If she ever did study, it was sprawled across pink shag rugs with her phone in her hand. I tried but I couldn’t zhōng yōng myself, I couldn’t stop digging up dregs. In college, her major was what? Communications? Beginner’s French? She was always wearing oversized boyfriend sweaters and had been in a threesome, twice. When I asked how an activity like that could keep happening, she said, I was curious, you know, I wanted to experiment and, who knows, to find myself, I was sober both times.
As I scrolled, my tea mug overflowed, scorching my thumb. The person waiting behind me handed me paper towels with a look that said I didn’t deserve them.
That night, I asked my husband what he would do, but it was useless talking to him in March, which was madness, or mid-April through mid-June, which were the playoffs.
To practice my silent mouthing technique, I went for a long stroll. Since no one was around, I unmuted myself and spoke to surrounding plants. Who was more daft? My husband or my little sister? Who was more useful, Veronique or me? The plants stared at me in shock. They all seemed to say, don’t be such a big little bitch.
Next year’s entrance exams were changing. Instead of A through E multiple choice answers, it would just be A through D. No guessing penalty, no experimental sections, no essay required. But the test itself was going to be much longer, the questions themselves more advanced, to finally catch American students up with the rest of the world. I, however, gave no hint of that to Beth. During our next Rolodex consult, I recited hundreds of questions to her, but modified them to be easier. I said the test length was to be cut down.
What’s the move there? Beth asked about the easier, shorter format.
I said I wasn’t privy to that information. I was just the messenger.
We’re growing, she said about her company.
I said, Veronique already told me.
But what I mean is we’re going national, Beth said. These next editions will be sold both online and in stores.
For previous editions, a student had to fax in an order form and wait some variable amount of time to receive a nondescript brown package in the mail. That the student had to find a fax machine made for a self-selecting clientele and added to the necessary tedium. You couldn’t feel ascendant unless you jumped through enough hoops.
And if all goes well, she continued, we’ll consider in-person classes themed around dinner parties and costume galas.
Isn’t that too much? I asked.
Silly, I mean.
People like buying into an experience.
But this is studying for an exam, Beth, a boring five-hour exam that many students have to take twice.
So? Why can’t there be some glamour in it? Why can’t it also be cool? She asked what I thought of their new ad campaign with Veronique. To get those shots, they’d hired professional photographers and a glam squad.
Are you asking me what I think about the pictures? I said.
That’s my question.
The ones that make our sister look like jailbait?
No younger than the kids taking these exams, she said.
The start of a possible joke: three women walk into a bar—a quiet one, a dragon lady, and a concubine—and each asks for a bowl of porridge.
I stopped reaching out to my sisters for a while. At work, I was checking answers to exam questions nonstop, and they were busy probably redecorating headquarters. The launch event for the new books was being held there; a postcard was sent to me inviting me to RSVP, then to spread the word on social media, then to come. The postcard was letterpressed, with a redesigned logo and a generically warm message from the co-founders, sisters and test prep gurus Beth and Veronique.
Who went to launch events for boutique test prep books? Boutique parents, I guessed, private school counselors, teachers and tutors.
That night, in the group chat, I decided to ask Veronique which country she was heading off to next. It seems you’ve been back long enough, I wrote. Wherever she wanted to go, I offered to pay. The Sahara sounded nice, or Mongolia with its high-altitude plains. Maybe there she could meet a real guru, a real teacher and sage who could tell her the secrets of life. An hour later I was still texting. It was just me, talking and musing, not unlike a rant. The rant was not solely directed at Veronique, I lashed out at Beth too. I said she was using our sister’s sex appeal to sell test prep books, how low. She was using me as well, but I worshipped Beth whereas Veronique was naïve. In between texts, I sent gifs of pandas climbing playground equipment and falling down.
Beth finally got me on the phone. I’d ignored her earlier calls while I was hunting for the best panda gifs.
What’s going on with you? she said in her big sister voice. Time to calm down now.
You always do this, I said. You always want to be the one holding all the cards.
I’m not sure what you mean, she said. I’m trying to run a company here. Of course I hold all the cards.
But you like to play favorites, I said. You’re hot and then cold.
I have so much on my plate. I’m also pregnant, don’t forget.
Sure, you are, I said.
You doubt that I’m pregnant?
Beth was legitimately with child and had been for two and half trimesters. But she couldn’t keep using her condition as a crutch. I said I’d assumed that she was pregnant, but what did I know anymore? Moving forward I would stop assuming things about other people and be more transparent about what I knew.
Listen to yourself, said Beth, except what she meant was listen to her. Listen to me, you’re mad because I haven’t given you enough credit. Mad it’s not you in the ads or postcards. Your husband’s not talking to you again, and you’re wallowing. That’s what this is. A big pity party for you.
Sure, it is, I said again.
What else would it be?
Not that, I said.
Whatever it is, I can’t support it. I can’t support both you and her and my unborn child. I’m only one person with lots going on, and you as your own person need to get a handle on it.
I do have a handle on it.
Do you? Veronique said the last time she saw you, you were so oblivious, that you were so out of it and disengaged.
The next words I didn’t form first with my mouth. I trusted my mouth to say exactly what I meant. I scored better than you did, Beth. On that national exam for top tier schools, I outscored you by a whopping total of fifteen points.
Which is one question, Beth said. A single question that, by dumb luck, you got right. And if we were to take the test again today, I would certainly outscore you. Without a doubt. I would do better.
Your company is a scam, I replied. Fraudulent really and based on illegally obtained data, the exact opposite of a meritocracy and what you’re trying to represent.
An uncomfortably long silence followed, and when remorse started to reflux, I pushed it back down. Stay strong, I told myself, enough was enough and there were only so many ways she could retaliate.
I love you, she finally said, which was not one of the ways I had predicted. I love you and I hope you can remember that.
Then she hung up.
From the tome of contradictory advice: love, as an emotion, was not too far off from hate. They were sometimes very similar, and at times I would argue the same. I hate you could mean that I hate your actions and behavior, I love you enough that your actions have hurt me, have made me unhappy and sad. If I didn’t love you at all, nothing you did would matter and I would not care.
In short, “I love you” was a bomb, and after Beth used it on me, I went out in the living room to sit next to my husband on the couch. Since the playoffs were still ongoing, he had split our TV screen in half so he could watch two games at once.
What do you think I should do? I asked.
He shifted to give me half a cushion space on the couch but didn’t look at me or turn his head away from the screen.
I don’t want to lose them, I said. I feel like I’m losing them or have already lost.
You won’t lose, he said.
I asked if I was being petty.
No way, just the right amount.
As I leaned into my good husband, I wrapped my arm around his and nuzzled his neck. Whenever a team scored and both his arms went up like the letter Y, followed by a primal hoot, my head would slide out of this nook and hit the back of the couch with a thud. Still, with a pounding headache, I nuzzled back in. Veronique and Beth could augment each other, they could egg each other on. The backseat of a car, sitting three in a row at the movie theater. Me in the center, enclosed and protected but trapped. So, I didn’t always like being around them, which led to my constant search for an ally. My husband was the first man I dated, and I married him within six months.
Beth postponed our next Rolodex chat. She said she had some stuff to take care of, then she and her husband were off to Martha’s Vineyard for their babymoon. I asked if we were fine again. I said my habit of conclusion-jumping had taken hold, and after I got it out of me, after that terrible outburst of unfounded conclusions, I felt a lot better.
Yeah, yeah, she said and deleted our call from an online calendar that we’d shared for many years. We found another time, but the day before she asked to push the call just by a week. A week turned into a month, one month into two. Then she had to postpone altogether because she had gone into labor with her child, a girl.
I should be there, I said, and she stated that her husband was already here, his parents and ours were coming tomorrow, and Veronique was bringing her a deluxe sushi platter right after the birth. Beth was dying to eat fatty tuna, yellowtail, and to have a glass of vintage red wine.
I knew I was being punished and that her comment about the wine was a test. Desperate students often emailed our company’s help desk, asking for any insider strategy or test-taking tips. For multiple choice, the best strategy is no strategy, just simple, common sense. The answer to every problem is given to you, and from the list of possible answers, all you have to do is choose.
I offered to bring the wine.
No, that’s too much, Beth said, drawing this out for as long she could. Wine at a hospital? That’s ridiculous.
I know the kind you like. I know which brand and year.
But it’s so late already, she said. Which liquor store is even open?
All of them, Beth. They’re all open right now because it’s 3pm on a weekday.
Is it? Is that really the date and time? Pregnancy brain.
I said I could be there within the hour.
The hour, my, that’s quick. The baby won’t have arrived yet but you’re more than welcome to try.