Trung Lai by Jamal Hunt, English Teacher
Only moments ago you couldn’t wait to escape the pounding of your chartered skiff’s outboard motor. Now it fades quickly to the south and you wish your body still vibrated to its comforting whum. “No time to waste on nostalgia,” you think, and you push on up the beach and into the lush undergrowth at the fringes of the “Trungle,” so named by locals.
The place looks ordinary, but you’ve heard that strange and brutal things happen here, and of a mysterious ruler who exceeds all imagination. Furtive interviews with the locals help you piece together a sparse biography, and then an audience with the Man Himself fills in a great deal more. The youngest of four children, Mr. Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to the Bay Area in early childhood. After high school he took a degree in computer science from Stanford University before working in a videogame studio in Ventura. Finally, in 2013 Mr. Lai moved to Santa Cruz to teach at PCS.
As much as a living, breathing human being can, Mr. Lai effortlessly incarnates math itself. His mind operates much like the functions it considers. Inexorable, clean, it scrubs the metaphysical landscape and discards unproven features. His stolid adherence to logic makes some wonder if, upon removal of Mr. Lai’s skullcap, we would find hard circuitry in place of the usual glistening grey. This idea withers under the light of time spent—though they do his bidding, this guy’s much more than ones and zeroes.
“We’ve figured out a lot about Trung, but the only thing we really know is that he never fails to surprise us,” says leading Laiologist Chris Nestlerode. “We’re beginning to suspect he might be some kind of Humanist.” Indeed, it was a lack of human meaning that drove Lai away from industry and into teaching, and for him all activity somehow connects to understanding and supporting humanity. He never hesitates to interrogate unexplained ideas or actions, and most discussions with him end in the realm of philosophy. In the right setting, a quiet moment might draw from him one of his favorite memorized poems or songs, or a pithy personal insight that somehow makes you wonder at all existence. And what would Lai die for? Without a pause: “Others.”
But who knows Mr. Lai better than his students? To many, he is simply “a genius” or “an icon.” One calls him “a passionate carnivore and badminton aficionado who never ceases to amaze with his thoughtfulness, candor, and quirky sense of humor.” Another says she “never met a person so secretly sweet and warm.” And another reveals the key to Mr. Lai’s heart: “If you bring him vanilla Pirouettes, he will be your friend forever.” Trung’s soul need not trade for contentment, for he has found its wellspring.
If, as Matisse believed, “the beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium,” Mr. Lai’s teaching is art, and it is beautiful. His students’ minds, clay in his hands, crack as they dry into shapes varyingly contorted and normal, yet the final kiln fire burns their glazes’ chrome oxide a rich green—dignified, show-worthy.