They remember his ideas, and how they saved the world.
But I remember the man, and how he saved me.
A great deal of ink (though in my estimation as yet too little) has by now been spilled about the life and times of Timothy Chu; among the more readable volumes on the legend are The Age of Tim and Inadequate in the Presence of Timothy. Reading the exploits of Timothy in his prime, it might be hard to believe that he too once knew loss, suffering, and human weakness.
But few of his adoring fans and biographers have the privilege of knowing Tim as a friend, as I do. With this unique privilege, I aim to tell the hidden story about the young man who became the legend, a young man who – while already extraordinary – lived a comparatively modest and down-to-earth life.
Chapter 1: From Steppes to Steps
It is tradition to seek wisdom at the Shaolin Temple as the final step towards manhood. At the age of fourteen, Timothy Chu is already a man, but as a man he knows the importance of tradition.
Tim climbs the steps to the temple four at a time.
Three monks, clad in plain grey-blue habits, sweep the steps up Shaoshi mountain, covertly guarding the only path to the temple.
Tim approaches the first monk, a hunchbacked and scarred man who presses his hands together in greetings.
“Amituofo, traveller. What business have you with Shaolin?”
Tim’s voice is usually unbelievably deep, but he softens it out of respect, “I have come to learn the Way from the Master of the temple.”
“I am Qiang, thirteenth seat of the fifty-third generation. To pass me you must demonstrate strength of will and body.”
Monk Qiang extends a wiry hand in the style of a Western handshake. Tim grips it automatically. Qiang tests Tim’s grip, hunching forward and pressing the force of his entire body into the handshake. The stone steps under Tim’s feet shudder and crack under the enormous force, but Tim himself seems immovable, keeping his pleasant smile and easy posture.
After progressively increasing the pressure for nearly a minute, Qiang gives way before the entire mountainside collapses under his legendary strength. He bows welcome to Tim and shifts aside to let him pass, letting go of his hand.
Tim catches the monk’s hand before it escapes.
“It’s my turn, now.”
Qiang feels an incredible pressure travel through his body from the center of his palm. The force ripples through his body, knocking him to his knees and loudly cracking the joints of his body from his wiry wrinkled fingers to his crooked neck, through his hunched back, all the way down to his bowed legs.
Dismayed and angered at the sudden assault, Qiang pushes himself up to retaliate –
– only to find that his spine now stands upright, his bowed legs straight and graceful, and his once-wrinkled skin stretches taught as fresh canvas across his bones. Rolling his neck in wonder, Qiang looks a whole twenty years younger. He opens his mouth in shock but no words come out, only an expression of silent gratitude.
A thousand feet further, the second monk, a placid young man, presses his hands together to greet Tim.
“Amituofo, commoner. I am Yong, eighth seat of the fifty-fourth generation. To pass, you must demonstrate courage beyond your years.”
Expressionless, Monk Yong produces a thin white rope. He ties a loop in one end and throws it high into the air to hook onto a branch of a sturdy oak on the outside of the mountain path. The other end, he ties around a large boulder. The rope stretches taut, cutting a thin white line through the air from the base of the boulder to a height of almost twenty feet in the trees.
Yong tiptoes onto the tightrope, somehow gripping the silky surface of the rope with the edges of his cloth shoes. Step by step, he ascends to the highest point. Despite the gentle breeze, it seems as if Yong is one body with the rope, every muscle and sinew pulled taut in perfect harmony. Only a thin veneer of sweat belies his exertion.
It’s an eternity before he reaches the highest point. With a flourish, he swings around the rope and slides down smoothly.
“Show me your courage, commoner.”
Tim rolls and stretches his broad shoulders to prepare for the challenge.
“I learned this move on the streets of Ulan Bataar. I call it the Team-Building Exercise.”
He jumps onto the boulder around which the rope is tied and turns so that his back faces the white line in the air. He closes his eyes and falls backwards – to be caught by the rope. Lying straight against it, he kicks off the boulder with a single foot. The power of the kick is such that his body shoots up the length of the rope, stopping just short of hitting his head on wood. Tim’s balance is such that his body seems as securely attached to the white line as a ski lift is to its supporting cable. For a single moment at the peak of his ascent, he lies suspended in the air, as if supported by an invisible hammock.
Tim slides back down the line gracefully.
Master Yong bows, “You have shown courage and grace.”
“No, Master Yong. That was merely skill. This is courage.”
Yong’s eyes are suddenly drawn to the lines of Tim’s face, which soften dramatically. A myriad of emotions pour forth through these expressive lines, painting a picture of a grand fourteen years of life.
Adventure. Brotherhood. Heartbreak. Anguish.
The joy of mathematics.
The passion of StarCraft.
Pride and the fall.
All these and more are written plain as day on Timothy Chu’s cherubic cheeks.
Reverent tears spring to Yong’s normally emotionless eyes, and he bows deeply, pressing his hands together, “Amituofo, brother. Truly, vulnerability is the greatest form of courage. May you find what you are looking for.”
On the last step before the imposing gate of Shaolin temple sits an ancient monk holding a book. His eyes are cloudy and unseeing, and yet he seems to be entranced by the book, reading its passages aloud.
“Who goes there?” The blind monk rises to his feet at the sound of Tim’s footsteps.
“Dear elder, I am Timothy Chu. I come to seek wisdom at this venerable temple. May I pass through the gate?”
The blind monk fumbles towards Tim and runs his ancient hands across the young man’s visage.
“Amituofo. I am Zhi, third seat of the fifty-second generation. To seek wisdom, you must first have knowledge. Have you walked a thousand miles and read ten thousand books?”
Tim remains silent, lost in thought. After a time, he opens his wallet and pulls out an sleek, understated black card embossed with an inscrutable pattern, which he hands to Zhi.
“I may not have walked a thousand miles, but I have flown a thousand million,”
The blind monk accepts the card and runs his hands over its engraved surface. His bushy greying eyebrows spring up in surprise.
“This … this is … it seems to be a Untied Airlines Global Premier membership card! But this level … I have never heard of. Is there truly a level above Gold Elite?”
Tim lets out a deep, warm laugh at the old man’s naiveté.
“Above Untied Gold Elite, there is a secret tier called Untied Platinum known only to Gold Elite members and above, which requires ten million miles to qualify. Above Platinum, there is another secret tier called Untied Diamond known only to Platinum members, which requires a hundred million miles to qualify.”
“So this is the Untied Diamond tier?”
“No. Above Diamond, there is yet another secret tier called Untied Black Diamond, which requires a thousand million miles to qualify. The existence of this last and highest level is known only to Black Diamond members, of whom there is only one.”
The monk sits down, as if shocked to his core. He whispers a mantra to calm his racing heart, “Beyond mountains, there are yet higher mountains. Above people, there are yet greater people. For such a young man as yourself to have ascended such heights! Tell me, Timothy Chu. Why does the Untied Black Diamond level exist if you are the only member?”
Tim sits down next to monk Zhi and puts an easy-going arm around his shoulder.
“Elder Zhi, if an MIT student puts on an MIT shirt in the morning, what is he after?”
After only a moment’s thought, monk Zhi replies, “He is signalling to the world, of course.”
“And if an MIT student puts on a Course 18 shirt, what is he after?”
“To signal to other MIT students.”
“And if instead he wears a Math Olympiad shirt?”
“To signal to other Course 18’s!”
Tim nods in approval, “As it is with MIT, so it is with Untied Premier levels. Gold Elite exists to impress the outside world. Platinum exists to impress Gold Elite flyers. Diamond exists to impress Platinum flyers. But if Black Diamond is only known of by Black Diamond members …”
Monk Zhi waits for Timothy to finish the train of thought, but Tim falls silent to allow Zhi to connect the dots.
Finally, after a long wait, Zhi finishes the sentence.
“… Black Diamond exists to impress Timothy Chu.”
And in that moment, monk Zhi was enlightened.
After many tears of jubilation and revelation, Zhi finally calms down from his cathartic moment of understanding. His left eye, once milky white and sightless, is now a deep smoky brown. With his vision partially returned to him, he grasps Tim in a deep hug.
“Thank you for returning my vision to me, young man. But I cannot yet let you pass into the temple. You have indeed traveled far and wide, but have you read ten thousand works of literature?”
Again Tim falls silent, lost in thought. After a time, he pulls out his laptop and opens a browser.
“I may not have read ten thousand works of literature, but I have written ten million fanfiction!”
Squinting with his single seeing eye, monk Zhi scans the titles that flit past:
… Alman the All-Man, The First Age of Alman, The Second Age of Alman, The Second-to-Last Age of Alman, Balman: Alman Next Generations …
… Trotsky and BackHo, Churchill and BackHo, Genghis and BackHo, Son Chan Woong and BackHo …
… Romance of the Red Azalea, Waiting for the Red Azalea, Making Tea with Red Azalea, The Red Azalea Under Floor Pi …
… Decision Theory for Damien, Life without Damien, Life with too little Damien, Damien and the Nameless Noodle Dish, Damien Damien Damien …
Zhi clicks the link to Damien Damien Damien: An Eternal Golden Braid and begins reading with his newly granted vision.
After the first sentence, he begins to giggle. Two pages in, elder Zhi is laughing harder than he’s ever laughed in his entire life, shaking his head while burying it in his arms. In this state, he continues to read, finishing all seven hundred odd pages in the afternoon. The sun dips below the horizon, but Tim waits for him without complaint.
Finally, monk Zhi sets it aside, still laughing.
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever read! Absolutely tasteless and low-brow! Such a thing hardly counts as literature, my friend.”
“With respect, elder Zhi, if you had to choose between writing literature and writing that makes human beings laugh and cry and love life, what would you choose?”
At those words, monk Zhi was enlightened and sight returned to his right eye.
It was the first time in recorded history that one man achieved enlightenment twice in the same day.