Through The Storm

Through The Storm




By: Evan Kail



Lake Superior, which borders my home state of Minnesota, harbors an infamous reputation as a graveyard for ships and sailors. The danger doesn't stem from the water's depth or weather patterns—both predictable; instead, the lake serves as a cauldron for ship-sinking rogue waves. These waves can form under any conditions and ruthlessly devour any unfortunate vessel caught in their path. The deadliest aspect of these rogue waves is that they arise from minute chances, a complex sequence of events that starts as insignificant but unfurls into an unstoppable force.


Much like Lake Superior, the internet is a deep, dark, and treacherous place to navigate.


I had braved social media for just over two years. I had fared well, amassing a six-figure audience first with dark comedy and then professionally with my persona, educating viewers about my business in the gold and silver industry. Never could I have imagined when I downloaded TikTok in November of 2019 the consequences that a single action could unleash.


It was the second week of September 2022 when I charged into my bathroom for another bout of vomiting. Clear bile erupted from my mouth and flowed into the sink bowl, followed by a loud gag-and-spit routine. There wasn’t any food left to come up at this point, only the water I’d consumed after the previous heaving. I ran cold water, splashed my face, and then braved a glance at the haggard stranger in the mirror. Dark rings had formed under my pale, glazed eyes. I had lost 25 pounds in a few short weeks and acquired numerous substance-abusing habits to cope with the stress. The only thing that occupied my mind was the voice inside, gnawing at me with the same question over and over: Did I ruin myself for good?


I was accustomed to chaos and misfortune. My life had been a perilous journey paved with cursed cobblestones, but this latest misadventure was a first; the road that had taken me there had resulted from pure chance.


Let’s rewind the clock a few years. Six months before the pandemic struck, I was in the midst of a midlife crisis. On the brink of turning 30, I finally realized that unattainable dreams had consumed my entire adult life in the entertainment industry. For a decade, I had poured all my energy into writing screenplays, books, music videos, and commercials, even attempting to make feature films as a writer/producer, and a decade of relentless effort had amounted to nothing more than a bonfire of time and money. Despite the stark realization that change was necessary, I refused to acknowledge the harsh truth staring me in the face. I kept telling myself that things would work out if I persisted a little longer. I took on various service jobs to make ends meet, from driving for Uber to working in retail and restaurants.


At the time, I was working as a waiter at a Nepalese restaurant when a visit from my father in March 2019 changed things forever. I had just finished a shift and walked home to meet him at my Uptown Minneapolis apartment.


He beamed when he stepped out of his rusty pickup truck and said, “Evan, you won’t believe this. Remember Bill, the gold guy? I just saw him, and guess what? He’s desperate for a young person! He told me not twenty minutes ago, ‘Harold, if you know any young people, please send them my way. I need to teach someone my business to take over for me.’”


My eyes betrayed me with a skeptical glance. I vaguely knew of Bill through my father as an eccentric big game hunter who catered to bullion-hoarding doomsday preppers. I struggled to contain my laughter at the prospect of working in a gold store.


Anyone who tried to put reality in my ears found out how selective my hearing was. I refused to give up on my ambitions, but my father’s plea somehow got through, and soon after, I found myself calling Bill to ask for an interview.


We met at Bill’s store a few weeks later. It resembled a fortress more than a store, with bulletproof glass, a 500-pound buzzing steel door, and enough guns to arm an entire militia. The place had a creepy vibe, and it wasn't just the dusty ambiance or the exotic taxidermy lining the walls. It reeked of a business that desperately needed new life, and after a few separate meetings, Bill hired me at $700 per week—more money than I'd ever made before.


I immediately modernized the store by bringing it into the 21st century. I digitized sales through eBay and significantly increased revenue by the end of the summer. With a background in filmmaking, I knew I’d stumbled onto something I could transform into a powerhouse. A trip to Las Vegas to celebrate my 30th birthday solidified that when I visited the world-famous Pawn Stars store. It was an “ah-ha!” moment that forever changed my life. I realized that their goldmine was information and that the fame it generated had turned into an international brand. I knew I had to do the same thing, but I would use social media instead of a TV show.


As I surveyed the digital landscape, I was pleasantly surprised to find that competition was conveniently scarce. After messaging a few people on Instagram who were successfully running businesses primarily on social media, I gained some valuable insights. I became convinced that this was the key to success, especially after learning that even businesses with only a few thousand followers were generating significant revenue online. Then, as the winter turned to spring and the pandemic hit, the need for a diverse, new strategy became essential. Bill was forced to shut down for months, and without the digital commerce I created, his business would have gone under. We had to get creative to survive, and social media became the answer.


There was one significant roadblock remaining: Bill had a girlfriend who was the very definition of a "Karen." From my first day working in Bill's store, I could tell she was going to be problematic. As my ambition grew and I worked hard to earn their trust, her resentment festered like that of a jealous child. Despite having been around for ten years, she had little understanding of Bill's industry and no desire to learn. Her official title was "bookkeeper," but her activities seemed to revolve around crossword puzzles and online shopping. She became known for her banshee-like demeanor, picking fights, verbally abusing Bill, and alienating customers with her insufferably unpleasant personality.


Karen represented a formidable obstacle to my social media vision. Therefore, in the summer of 2020, I initiated a clandestine project. When Bill and Karen retreated to their cabin, they left me in charge on Fridays and Saturdays. These were the days I brought in a camera to record my interactions with walk-in customers, adding educational and comedic bits. The YouTube videos gained traction swiftly, and I soon embraced the moniker "Pawn Man," given by a viewer. We weren’t a pawn shop, but the name was too catchy to resist, and it caught on. Before long, Pawn Man became so well-known that I could no longer conceal it.


Bill appreciated the videos once he saw them, but Karen demanded a halt to the entire operation. We struck a deal: if I could turn the viewership into sales, the filming could continue.


Two months later, the Pawn Man TikTok account had soared to 25,000 followers and was generating the majority of the business's daily revenue. This success only intensified Karen's bitterness. Following a ludicrous Christmas DUI for which she blamed everyone but herself, our working relationship deteriorated beyond repair. Karen ultimatumed Bill: Either I buy the business for $250,000 within four months, or she would leave him. I had no idea where the hell I was going to come up with the money. They’d taken me in practically off the street just 18 months prior, and weren’t paying me anywhere close enough to make the purchase. Feeling betrayed, I realized that I had to venture off on my own, returning to waiting tables was not a fallback I was willing to consider.


With assistance from a few generous online followers, I managed to secure some high-interest, short-term loans, liquidate everything I owned that could be sold, and amassed $80,000 to launch my own venture, St. Louis Park Gold and Silver. The capital was modest in comparison to the typical requirements of the precious metals sector, yet I was determined to carve success through social media. The craziest thing was, it worked. The business turned a profit in its first year of operation.


Creating engaging content became the heart of my new enterprise, and I soon discovered controversy translated to more views, and that generated sales. There was heavy criticism, but I didn’t care. My dreams were coming true right before my eyes and despite the turbulent waves of social media, I navigated through and built something substantial. I loved my industry, too. My penchant for historical intrigue sometimes steered me towards contentious subjects. For example, my interest in World War II and my Jewish heritage prompted me to explore the darker humor in presenting Third Reich artifacts in a historical context. They were ballsy tactics, but if anyone could pull it off, it was an off-color personality like mine, and viewers noticed.


I dedicated months to refining our social media presence and introduced innovative concepts like the "Remote Deals" program, where viewers sent items for appraisal and potential purchase. The format was an instant hit, reminiscent of the allure found in shows like Antiques Roadshow—people were captivated by the revelation of others' treasures, their worth, and the potential for profit.


As the audience expanded, so did the eccentricity of the items offered through the "Remote Deals." Notable submissions included antique firearms, rare autographs, and even controversial items like Pervitin tablets—known as Nazi methamphetamines—and macabre "murderabilia."


Little did I anticipate the turn of events when, in August 2022, I received an email from a viewer with a World War II photo album, warning that some of its contents were "violent and disturbing." Given the nature of the war, I didn't dwell on the caution. After all, the whole war was disturbing. In the past, I had ethically declined offers like holocaust negatives, but this album's owner had not mentioned war crimes, so I agreed to accept it.  


A family friend visited my store on Monday, August 29th. As we were catching up, a delivery driver arrived with a package for my signature.


"What's that?" inquired my friend.


"Just another delivery," I replied. "Part of my 'Remote Deals.' People mail in their items, I feature them in a video, and decide whether to buy, consign, or return them. I've only had to send back one package—it was literally a box of junk."


We shared a chuckle as I slit open the package with a stiletto knife. As light spilled into the box, two ornate roaring dragons embossed on a leatherbound cover stared up at me.  "Oh, it's that photo book from World War II," I remembered, extracting the hefty album. Donning a pair of latex gloves, I opened it to give my friend a glimpse of its contents.


The first item that greeted our eyes was a fanciful certificate titled "Golden Dragon of the 180th Meridian," which I surmised to be a sailor's playful souvenir from their travels.


Flipping to the next page, we discovered another humorous certificate, followed by an entry from the sailor, Leslie G. Allen Jr., along with a catalog of his journeys across Southeast Asia, dated 1937. The quality of the photographs as we delved deeper into the album was stunning; unlike the typical wartime photos of that era, these images could have graced the pages of National Geographic, capturing life in Southeast Asia in the mid-1930s with vivid clarity.


However, about a dozen pages in, the album’s tone shifted dramatically to reveal the context of war.


"Oh, Christ, Evan!" my friend exclaimed, recoiling from the brutality spread across the next six pages.


I stepped back, hands on hips, and shared a look of dismay with my friend.  "No thanks. I'm out of here," he declared, snapping on his bike helmet and hastily exiting.


As I continued to flip through the album, the mention of "Nanjing Road" caught my eye and sent a chill through me. I knew about the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” well and wondered if these photos could be from that atrocity. These unseen images suggested the potential discovery of an artifact hidden from history, and to boot, I’d never come across such high-quality photos from the era. If the book was what I thought, its monetary and historic value were immeasurable.


That night, I had trouble sleeping. The material was so troubling it infiltrated my dreams. Armed with a degree in Japanese Studies from the University of Minnesota, I was no stranger to the Pacific Holocaust, a period stained by destruction and concealment of evidence. The moral dilemma presented itself starkly: the album, I believed, housed artifacts of inestimable value, out of my financial reach, yet I couldn’t send it back only to be tucked away and forgotten. These images had to be seen and preserved.


The owner of the album called on August 31st. I expressed my conviction that it belonged in a museum, not an attic. Despite my substantial following on TikTok, my previous attempts to engage museums with historical items had been futile. This time, I was determined to get someone’s attention, and the only way I knew how to do that was through a provocative video.


I tapped into the power of my volunteer researchers on Discord for a brief on the Rape of Nanjing. By early afternoon, they delivered a succinct two-page script for my use on TikTok.  While reading it on my lunch break, one of my employees inquired about the subject. I began to explain but found myself emotionally overwhelmed and handed him the summary instead.


His reaction was palpable; a look of horror washed over him as he absorbed the grim details. "God," he whispered, “I never knew about this.”


“It’s not taught in America the same way the German holocaust is. You can’t tangibly measure evil, but what happened in the Pacific is every bit as heinous as what happened in Europe. People deny this happened. This book of photos could provide new insight, and it’s sitting right here,” I said, gesturing towards the album. "I'll be addressing this on TikTok later today. I need help from a museum."


“Why don’t you just call one up?” he asked.


“Because despite an audience of almost a quarter-million people, no museum has ever given me the time of day.” It was true. In the past, I’d had all sorts of macabre items advertised, many of which could also have been museum treasures. But even small, local museum inquiries had gone unanswered. “Honestly, I think making a bunch of noise with a video is the only way to get their attention.”


I had no idea that notion was lathering myself in blood and diving head-first into shark-infested waters. After lunch, I prepared to create the TikTok video. My usual approach screaming “PAWN MAN” in the first few seconds wouldn't be appropriate here. Neither would music. I needed to be solemn and respectful, yet construct something that demanded to be seen.


My initial attempts were too mired in historical detail, exceeding TikTok's three-minute limit, and the app kept crashing, which forced me to start over. Frustration mounted as the day ended and my employees departed. Determined, I tried once more; this time emotion overtook me, and I found myself tearful. Finally, after another meticulous hour, I completed a video that felt right, posted it at 7 pm, and left for the evening.


Returning after a night out with friends, curiosity led me to check the TikTok around 3 am. My heart dropped like a stone into the pit of my stomach. The video had gone viral with over two million views, spreading internationally, especially across Chinese social media platforms. Twitter was ablaze, too; my following there had ballooned from 620 to nearly 15,000, clamoring to see images from the album.


I knew the precarious nature of hosting graphic content on TikTok, having faced bans for less. Twitter, however, seemed more lenient, so I took a risk and shared a few select images. "This is probably going to be a long day," I muttered to my departing friends. Indeed, the next morning was chaos. My store was besieged with calls, and my staff was overwhelmed by journalists' requests for interviews.


At first, the rush of attention was exhilarating. My social media-centric career had prepared me for this moment, and as my follower count soared, so did my notoriety— some even hailed me as a modern-day hero. The accidental virality of a TikTok video had thrust me into the global spotlight.


However, by the end of the day, the weight of public scrutiny became suffocating. I found myself unable to eat as the backlash within the comments section grew louder and more vitriolic. Some were predicting my imminent arrest or worse, while others dismissed the entire situation as a hoax crafted for fame.


I stared at the accusations incredulously. “Holt shit, there are people saying I’m using a war crime to get famous!” I cried. It was a knife in the heart of my intentions. I wanted to roar back how wrong everyone was, but I knew it would be futile. I simply had to weather the storm.


Frantic phone calls from my technology-averse parents confirmed the extent of the situation. “Somehow even my parents saw the video,” I told my anxious employees. It was only the beginning of a nightmare.


The turmoil escalated over Labor Day weekend, with online communities painting me as the week's villain. One D-list celebrity threw such incendiary remarks about me; my mother called in tears, insisting I get police protection. Watching others stuff your mouth full of actions and words you never intended is nothing short of maddening.


But none of it compared to the stinking rebukes from academics and historians. It not only destroyed my credibility; it made me look like a fool drowning in an ocean I set out to sail. It seemed I’d made a career-ending mistake- Nanjing Road isn’t in Nanjing… It leads out of Shanghai. The Japanese Army engaged in barbarism there before moving on to Nanjing, but the photos themselves did not come from the massacre. From the moment I saw the word “Nanjing” written in that book, combined with the violence, my mind ran away, and I chased it right off a cliff.


I drowned in self-pity and substance, questioning whether I had irreversibly burned my life to the ground. Yet paradoxically, Chinese citizens began to show up at my store, offering their support through hugs and tears, letters, and even flower bouquets. This juxtaposition of highs and lows only added to the complexity of the situation, making my quest to find a museum home for the book increasingly daunting amid the flood of messages.


Journalists swarmed me, some under the guise of sincerity, only to pivot to a contrary narrative that further eroded my reputation. One particularly damaging piece in Rolling Stone featured the worst snapshot from my TikTok video, accompanied by scathing commentary from a historian.


Then came the creepy threats, mostly from dummy accounts messaging me my home address. This made me really digest the gravity of how dangerous the situation was becoming. During an interview with Chinese State media at my store, I looked like I was physically and mentally unraveling. I demonstrated my preparedness to defend myself, showcasing my conceal-and carry 9mm pistol combined with a bullet-proof vest.  


Suspicious activity became common. An unmarked, tinted-window van I suspected was FBI parked across the street from my store and sat there every day for over a week. I warded off several intruders too, one of which tried to hack into my WIFI. I was also inundated with shady phone calls from bizarre strangers offering huge amounts of money to purchase the album. A few latently threatened me.


All of this escalating insanity forced me to shut down public access to my business for several weeks, which cost thousands of dollars in lost revenue. However, these incidents paled in comparison to my fear of the photo album being stolen. That would cement the appearance of hoax and truly damn me to oblivion.


To safeguard the album, I orchestrated secretive handoffs with trusted friends in nondescript locations, ensuring its safety while I sought answers for homing it. I even forced them to leave their cell phones at home for the transfers and to keep the exchange down to five seconds or less. This spy-novel charade went on for weeks, yet it did nothing to quell my anxiety.


The first thing I needed to do was get an expert to look at it. At first, tons of academics and museum personnel reached out, eager to see the album. Some were even offering to fly cross-country to examine it, but I wasn’t comfortable with that, given all the questionable characters that came out of the woodwork. I arranged for a local Doctor of Photography from the Minneapolis Institute of Art to assess the album. Sadly, after the D-List celebrity’s video criticizing my intentions went viral, everyone fell off the face of the earth after I’d announced he was coming, no less. Now, the hoax narrative shifted into high gear, and the internet ate me alive.


I sat outside my store on the bench and suffered a panic attack, my third of the week. Here was where fortune smiled for a change. Mike, the lawyer tenant above my store, happened to walk by. He stopped and said, “Boy, Evan, you don’t look so good. Why the long face?”


“I jumped into a pool five hundred feet deep, and it turns out I can’t swim,” I muttered. He sat down next to me and listened to the whole story.


“You know, it never hurts to ask for help,” he said. “I might have a lifeline for you.” Mike revealed to me his father was the Joe Friedberg, a legendary criminal defense attorney who still practiced. A few phone calls later, and I had an invitation to meet Joe in his office the next day.


I arrived at 2 pm, dressed entirely in black with my hood drawn up. As soon as I stepped into the office, a sense of security washed over me for the first time in days. The lobby exuded an air of confidence, which Joe’s personal office amplified. However, when Joe and his partner, Bruce Rivers, caught sight of the vest and gun I carried under my jacket, their expressions shifted with alarmed surprise.


“It’s a necessary precaution,” I said.


“Alright, sit down and tell us what happened,” Joe said.


I only spoke a few words before emotion choked tears out of my eyes. For a few uncontrollable seconds, I wept uncontrollably. “I’m sorry, but what a fucking mess,” I began. “I’m just emotionally wrung out like a towel. This has been too much to handle.”


I calmed myself and explained the story from start to finish. I concluded by asking, “Am I going to get charged with something here? There are people saying everything from hoax to treason online.”  


“Forget all that and tune it out. All that matters is what you want to do. Where is the album going to end up In your mind?”


“A museum, but not an American one. It’s become clear to me how much the contents of this album still affect Chinese society. If you look online, it’s becoming a symbol of painful Chinese history, so it belongs there. No question about it.”


“Well, let’s call them up,” Joe casually offered. We outlined a plan: In the coming days, Joe’s office would contact the Chinese government and arrange a donation. He suggested a legally binding contract to facilitate and safeguard the process. He also warned me to refrain from any further public statements or interviews. “Kid, whatever you do, keep your mouth shut. No TikTok posts about this. No interviews. Lay low until it’s resolved.”


I attempted to shift the narrative and resume making regular content, but it felt so strange. Meanwhile, the internet continued demanding answers, and my silence, in effect, substituted as a damning indictment. The Internet court of public opinion ruled I was a bastard, and that ship sailed further out to sea every day. As the weeks passed, I started feeling numb to it all. All I knew was I just wanted my life back.


Finalizing the album sale with the owner was accomplished by mid-September. I rang him on a disposable phone, laying it out plainly, "You do not want any part of this mess, believe me. I don't know the book's value, and the waters have become so murky, I can’t get anyone to give me an opinion and to be honest, I am terrified someone is going to steal it. How about I pay you a thousand dollars, donate it to China, and we call it a day?”


He agreed, and after we signed a contract and I paid him, I officially secured ownership of the album. From there, I secretly had a digital copy made from a local photographer I trusted.


Joe and I spoke a few times as September drew to a close, but liaising with the Chinese government was a lengthy process, and just like with authentication, misconceptions and hearsay from the video only compounded matters worse.


In early October, I finally secured help from a local museum rendering an opinion about the album. Although I wasn’t planning to broadcast any more information until the donation was complete, I needed to hear an answer for myself. I arranged for the book to be at my store for a brief examination before putting it back in hiding.


“I am not a foremost expert in photography reproductions,” the museum curator said, “but back in World War Two, sailors used to purchase souvenir copies of bad photos to fill their scrapbooks with.” She flipped through the album and added, “I see some here that are definitely reproductions. However, this book itself is full of pictures, and I would say the majority are real. Even though these violent photos are all likely souvenirs, it is exceptionally rare to see quality this high. Whoever owned this book obviously didn’t open it more than a few times. Don’t take the online scrutiny too seriously. I think it’s quite a find.”


By November, we had reached an agreement to donate the album. The deal we were signing at Joe’s office detailed that I would retain the digital rights for educational purposes, while China would assume ownership of the physical album.


I still wasn’t sure if the Pawn Man brand would ever recover. The virality of a social media post can catapult someone into a dubious spotlight. Every few months, someone's life is upended by a video that garners unintended infamy, often concluding in their personal downfall. I had become the latest member of this notorious club. The distress manifested physically, leaving me withered and visibly aged. It felt like a piece of my soul had been cut off, and it wasn’t growing back.


The twist of irony was not lost on me. I had strived for such recognition for years, yet

when it arrived, it felt poisoned. The accusations of orchestrating a hoax overshadowed

any triumph, and above all else, it hurt. A lot. Now, all I longed for was to restore my integrity and to have the truth acknowledged.


On Wednesday, November 16th, I arrived at Joe's office sporting a black suit, white shirt, and red tie to meet the Chinese officials flying in from Chicago. When they arrived, I read a letter explaining my actions before offering the book as a symbol of peace, harmony, and friendship. We shook hands, snapped a few pictures, and then the Chinese ambassador presented me with a letter of thanks from the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in Chicago, as well as a porcelain tea jar, an enigmatic token that I didn't fully grasp but appreciated.


Later that evening, in the solitude of my store, a feeling of vindication started to replace the weeks of turmoil and dread. I recorded a final statement to release online, packed up, and went to a five-star restaurant to celebrate with a close friend. That truly was the tastiest dinner of my life.


Sadly, it seemed my victory felt short-lived, for the internet's appetite for drama far outweighed its interest in resolution, and baseless accusations about me persisted. Much to my ire, no surge of attention came at the saga's onset, and no redemption arc played out in the public eye.

The story that had once consumed the world's attention quietly receded into the backdrop of an ever-churning news cycle. Only a handful of journalists reached out after the donation, almost exclusively from China, while the Western outlets that had fanned the flames of controversy remained conspicuously silent, failing to correct the dooming narrative they had helped shape. But one truth would leave me feeling vindicated, and that ultimately drowned out everything else.


When presented with the tea jar, the ambassador said, “This is a very important gift,” but he did not elaborate, and I didn’t think much of it. However, in the weeks following, I came to learn China had bestowed me one of their highest diplomatic honors. It wasn’t just a pretty porcelain piece. It was a National Gift, an accolade typically reserved for heads of state like Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth II. Unexpectedly, I found myself among such illustrious company, not for heroics in battle, or normalizing diplomatic relations, but for a TikTok that had accidentally educated millions. The tea jar, as I was told, was not just a token of respect but a lifeline for aid, should I ever need it; a “magic lamp,” if you will. I will never sell it, but I have been told it could command as much as one million dollars at auction.


This unprecedented turn of events, born from the depths of online infamy, became a defining moment in my life. Only the digital age could produce a story like this: a social media influencer named Pawn Man, who does not actually engage in Pawn loans, educated the world about the Nanjing Massacre using a photo album that did not actually contain photos of the event itself.


The story also highlights the relentless nature of the internet's echo chamber, where doubling down on initial judgments becomes the norm, and conspiracy theories run amok. To this day, treacherous allegations about me range from faking the donation using actors to dog-whistling it was a hoax by wearing an anime villain special-edition G-Shock watch to speculation the tea jar is a copy purchased off Amazon. It perfectly illustrates the disturbing level of cynicism pervading online discourse.


Yet life's unpredictability has led to a peculiar reconciliation, and despite the initial turmoil, humor finds its way through the cracks. I haven’t been making comedy videos on my alternate account like I used to. Finding a way to laugh became a challenge and remains so to this day. After all, life got very unfunny for me for a while. Therapy has been a balm for the sting of public scrutiny, a process of healing that's still ongoing.


In September 2023, I was honored with an invitation from the Consulate General in Chicago to attend a function celebrating the 74th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. When the embassy staff saw me standing in line to enter the event, they promptly whisked me past security and ushered me right up to the Consulate General. It's a strange feeling bypassing a huge line, ushered past security, up to a top diplomat. When we shook hands, I joked, "Sir, it's the most midwestern thing imaginable to say, 'Thank you for your thank you,' but thank you for everything. Your letter and gift meant so much to me. I didn't donate the book for any reason other than the fact that doing the right thing knows no borders."


It’s been a year since the donation took place, and my perception of what all transpired has gained clarity in hindsight. It's nice to know I have allies for life, from the largest country on earth. I ended up in the hospital in the past year, and Chinese journalists and netizens were contacting me daily to make sure I was okay. It was a very curious thing, but it helped me recover almost as fast as the medical care I received. I’ve also become quite popular on Chinese social media. Whenever I sign on, I find myself staring at my own profile with a look of surprise, occasionally muttering, “How did I even do this?”


The year 2023 has been marked by a strain in Sino-American relations, inadvertently positioning me at the forefront of an international discourse I never intended to join. It’s the reason why I waited a full year to release the full photo album online for all to see. Despite my best intentions, the conversations my actions have incited continue to cause unease, occasionally punctured by disquieting rumors that disturb the quiet of the night. While these whispers are, I hope, only speculation, they have put on hold my aspirations to visit China. Yet, there remains a hope—a hope that in time, I will journey there and experience its rich culture and warm people, unencumbered by scrutiny.


In his letter to me, Consulate General Zhao Jian wrote, “History serves as a mirror for the people today and your donation certainly inspires everyone with a kind heart to safeguard peace.” I find myself staring at that letter when feeling down and it reminds me I weathered a storm for good reason. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. As I told The New Yorker in 2022, “If the conversation is genocide, and someone is being educated, then nothing is lost.”




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