The Third Smartest Man by Jenna Bao

Apparently, my great-great grandfather was the third smartest man in the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1912). That’s fine and swell, bringing honor, wealth, and all those good things. But I like to think about the great grandfather, the poor kid who had to dwell in the villa that his father’s smarts got them and stay up at night, the reverence they used when they spoke of his dad ringing in his ears. Other people probably envied him; after all, it’s easy to succeed when the expectations bear down on you with the threat of your parent’s disappointed face; heaven knows it only needs to pop up once to sear itself into your memory. It’s easier to make yourself work when you do it for so much more than the titles or positions at the emperor’s side, when you put more pressure on yourself than your parents ever could. He probably worked and studied and made everyone proud, everyone besides himself of course. Then, one day, I bet he found himself grown, found himself at the place where he thought it would be simple and he’d be happy, before realizing that it would never be that easy because, heaven knows the path to becoming the best was a sprint compared to the marathon of staying there. And by then, he was probably so busy and confused that he didn’t even notice how his own kid was falling right in line. Maybe if he had, things could be different. Maybe then I would be able to breathe. Or at least, that’s one of the lies I like to tell myself. I know, though, that the hunger is in my genes.

Before I started preschool, my mom had already taught me the curriculum for the first grade. Not because she thought that I would need the extra help, but because she wanted me to fall in love with the feeling of being the smartest person in the room. It worked. There’s a kind of adrenaline that comes from accuracy, a kind of high that comes with respect. It’s addictive and sweet, and when all of a sudden it’s yanked out from under you, you’ll do anything to get it back.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s how it feels to use drugs, and maybe I understand why people flock to them, do wild things for them. Really, I do the exact same, but my desperation appears in a classroom, not an alleyway, and the chemicals I need are the hormones already in my head. But of course, I would never say that aloud. Being an elitist comes with the territory; it’s not like my ancestor hung out with the punks who ranked below 15 on the national exam. After all, the country, century, tests, and titles can all change, but people don’t. The problem though, is when you try and you push and you burn but it isn’t enough. The problem occurs when you hold your third place medallion in your hand and throw on the fake smile that you know looks like the grimace of a dying fish for the congratulatory crowd. I wonder how my ancestor felt when some Confucius-wannabe read off the results of the Imperial Exam, and he realized that for the rest of his life, for the rest of history, he would be almost- there. After all, the only ones who remember third are the descendants and the black sheep who major in Chinese and memorize Qing Annals. He certainly couldn’t talk about it with his peers; he had enough pride not to discuss with the ones who did better and enough tact not to complain to those who did worse.

I wonder if he wore a glazed expression during the celebrations because he was busy thinking about what it could’ve been, what one word he botched. I wonder if he hated that he couldn’t just be proud, if he hated the way every conversation with friends was a potential sparring match with the competition, always competition, if he hated how trapped he was. I wonder if he ever considered, for just a fracture of a moment, tossing his scrolls, his quills, his everything into the Yellow River and let himself be something simpler, and then shook the traitorous thought out of his head before it could fester. I wonder if he got tired. I wonder all these things, because I can’t be the crazy one (the weak one). People don’t talk about it; after all, pride is our fame, dignity our fortune. I bet he told himself that being the third smartest man in the Qing Dynasty would make him happy. I bet he was miserable.

They say that we’re bright, and they say we do well on their little tests, and we sop it up because we’re a batch of scrabbling addicts and liars. Because the truth? All we are is a pack of quivering fools.