If that doesn't make sense to you, be grateful.
I am not accustomed to feeling like the outsider in geekdoms. You give me a limited number of video games, most geeky books, nerdy movies or TV shows and I can move with authority among the more extreme elements, even if I have yet to experience the actual source. I have my own passionately held appreciations of media (the Buffyverse, all things Gaiman, most things made by Bryan Fuller, the new Doctor Who series, Discworld, The Invisibles, The Maxx, and a shame-worthy number of internet memes). Yet, any anime even slightly esoteric always registered as not particularly interesting. Amber has tried to show me Utena, Witchhunter Robin, Helsing, but none seemed appealing. It wasn't the captioning or the fault of bad translation, as I have happily endured far worse. If it wasn't Studio Ghibli, it all looked and sounded like Sailor Moon to me.
Before we leave for Otakon, I find a fortune cookie left from the prior night's dinner. I hold it out to Amber. "This cookie will be the fortune for Otakon!"
I crack it open and squint at the paper. When in doubt, mumble.
Otakon is an anime convention in Baltimore, Maryland that encompasses a convention center, several connected hotels, and an indoor stadium. It is not for wimps or smatterers, and I cannot even begin to boast of being the latter.
In the hotel parking lot, there is a car labeled "Otakon Express" whose plate reads "Cosplay" and which is covered in meme related stickers referencing Harry Potter, Portal, Homestuck, and whatever else obsessed the internet. This almost makes me feel comfortable, as though I will not completely be out of my depth.
We convince the officious man at the front desk to call up to the room, despite the fact that we cannot remember Darrel's last name. It may not help that, frazzled by the road madness, I am examining the complimentary cookies and grumbling at the deceptive raisins. "How dare you pretend at being chocolate chips, after all I've been through?! How dare you.... oh, this one is chocolate chip! All is well."
He tells us the room number after confirming over the phone that Amber is either expected or welcomed.
The room contains not Laurel or Darrel, both of whom are natives of St. Lucia and one of whom booked the room we will be sharing, but a blond man looking at a Diablo III forum on his laptop, his shirt a reference to lemon grenades from Portal 2. He barely acknowledges us, but says the rest of the crew is currently missing in action but he is not worried.
After assuring our parents we survived the trip physically - if not psychologically - intact, we take a keycard and prepare to go into the city. The blond man swears he will meet us downstairs just as soon as he reads a few more threads, telling us to summon the shuttle to the rail station.
"So, who is that?" I ask Amber as we exit the room.
"Chris, I think?"
"And who is he to you?" I ask.
"We went to the cosplay burlesque together last year," she says.
I later find out his name is Brian, not Chris. The binds of having gawked at pasties-covered nipples do not involve remembering one's name, apparently.
"We are getting one of those beds, right?' I ask. "We are a couple, it is the least awkward way of doing this."
"I don't know, we have to wait until other people get here," Amber says.
"I will pee in one of the beds to assure we have a place to sleep." I consider how unreasonable this is, that I am perhaps still a bit out of sorts because of the long trip. "...No, I will pee on both of them, but I will pee on one slightly more so they know I mean business."
Brian, Amber, and I take the rail to the convention center to get our badges, almost entirely why we are in Baltimore a day early. The line on opening day can take many hours to conquer. Though it stretches down two sides of the center tonight, I am told to be grateful it isn't worse.
Prowling outside are disheveled residents of the city, shoving bottles of water at those in line. I was warned that they would be out in force, trying to sell the otaku water for $1. Given my experiences with New York City panhandlers, I feared that these people would be just as bad, circling like sharks around a fresh wound. Fortunately, they are more interested in the dollars than intimidating anyone out of them, so they move on quickly when we express interest in nothing. Every time I leave a building for the rest of the convention, the street vendors will have become more elaborate, from wheeled coolers, to vans, to ice cream trucks, to large tents will grills inside and seating for five. I doubt any have permits as they seem to vanish or relocate with remarkable rapidity.
When I get to the end of the line, I am shown a selection of badges, all but one featuring characters in cartoons I do not know. For fear of enticing a fan of the shows to assume I have any idea what I am wearing, I opt for the one with the crab mascot of this con, as it is guaranteed to be inoffensive to anyone without shellfish allergies.
By the time I turn back, Brian has connected with interchangeable men whom I am not going to bother to consider separate people.
We all walk to the pub across the street. I do not care what is going on at the convention center, if indeed there is any draw beside getting one's badge and scoping out the costumed competition. I only want food. This will be among the last times I think this for the rest of the weekend, as I am sickened in a very literal way by the food available near the con.
Brian and the interchangeables talk though various fandom related scuffles. I contribute some skepticism about the most recent Batman movie, but have otherwise resigned myself to being a mumbling outsider as various Asian sounding words are bandied about, chastising the accuracy of the fortune cookie.
The storm outside ebbs to a trickle and I urge the group to make haste with the check so we can get back to the hotel. However, they have yet to detail exactly how unrealistic the physique of some anime girl is, so we sit until the storm rages with pummeling rain, shaking thunder, and incessant lightning. Then they decide it is nigh about time we get to the Light Rail.
We see the train stopped at the station and we run, managing to reach it with a minute to spare. The doors will not open. Though there is ample seating within, none of the Baltimoreans inside press the button to let us in. They simply look at us, soaked to the bone and miserable, and collective decide they haven't seen us. The train slowly pulls away and we sit for the next forty-five minutes on uncomfortable seats that collapse whenever we stand, feeling as though mildew is growing in our joints.
I begin to resent this experience, though it has barely begun. Amber directs me to look at the windows of the convention center, the rain turning the florescent lights into luminous snakes.
Laurel, Darrel, and his brother Deondre are in the room when we return. Though Laurel works in Baltimore, her bus broke down on the way home to get her costumes and supplies. It took her many hours to get back to where she started again with her companions.
She asks good-naturedly how I am good enough for her Amber. "Do you make anything?"
"I've written two fantasy novels," I say, quite sure this is among the first this things Amber tells anyone about me. "Another is on its way."
"Yes, but do you make anything? Do you do anything with your hands?"
I shoot Amber a glance. "I don't think I should say in mixed company."
We do not have to tussle over beds and my territorial bladder remains sheathed. I am so cozy in the bed I had settled on and the Olympics have distracted them from pushing me out.
I mean the paler one.
Amber wakes me with a kiss in the morning. I grumble as she says something I cannot decipher under the haze of lifting sleep and my earplugs. I remove the latter and she asks, "Would you like some breakfast?" motioning toward a Styrofoam plate of complementary French toast sticks, limp and greasy bacon, and a bagel with cream cheese, all partly devoured. She is the best.
The otaku do not have Baltimore to themselves. The Light Rail station is so packed with sports fans in oversized jerseys and Fourth Doctor length scarves that we miss the first train because they are slowly buying their tickets. One of the fans - sweating buckets from his sports paraphernalia - has the audacity to look over the cosplayers who will be sharing the train and derides them for dressing up so stupidly. I wish a riot to break out and his impeccable-yet-moist jersey to be stained with the blood of his busted lip. The man beside dressed up as The Monarch from Venture Brothers may not be my people, but he is a lot closer than an unself-aware sports fan with an undeserved sense of entitlement.
On the train, some Baltimoreans talk about the more audaciously costumed convention goers as though they are not there, which makes me itch at their rudeness.
Amber and I enter Otakon and are greeted with a sea of mashing fandoms. Some cosplays are so well done it boggles the mind to imagine these people have day jobs. Most are less startling and the eye forgets them. There are certain odd tropes among these that reoccur, such as a dozen women independently dressed up as Loki from the movies (no one cosplays proper gods outside of those hideous South American passion plays and voodoo rituals). It is all a bit overwhelming.
Over thirty thousand people attend the convention this year, more than any before, and it certainly feels every bit that packed. During one of the AMV panels, a card comes up saying that under a thousand showed up at the first Otakon in 1994. I cannot imagine the intimacy of that.
As I try to take a picture of one of the better Lokis, she demands that I kneel before her, something that seems a prudent idea to get a sufficiently awe-worthy shot. She looks to Amber and says, "You have this one well trained!"
I am content to have this as one of Amber's worlds, a place I can visit but where I would not come along. Free Spirit Gathering, much as I loved it the two times I went, was a continent of Emily's world. Melanie felt Bard was the capital of her nation, a point on which I never agreed. Amber went to Otakon barely a month into our romance, but it did not exist as a concept for me until then. I could never go again and not feel I missed anything. I am not a necessary component of the experience for her.
Every time we enter of exit a significant door or go to a connecting hotel, we have to pull out and show our badges, even though we had to show them to get into Otakon and to move about freely. This becomes fairly routine for Amber and me, though it seems to baffle many of the otaku, who get frustrated and fidget around in purses and cleavage for the badges they keep putting away, thus creating even more lines.
Amber leads me into the Hangry and Angry fashion show, though it does not begin for another forty minutes, leaving me to scribble notes and take in the surroundings. On either side of the catwalk, in front of the chairs, are theater size screens flashing the same series of images of mutilated cartoon cats cavorting. The screen flashes "Kiss me, kill me" and the teenage girl beside me loudly mopes to no one loudly that some boy only kissed her.
"Was he supposed to kill you?" I ask her.
"It's an [unintelligible Asiatic gibberish] line," she says, then quotes something that suggests English translations lack finesse. She looks at me as though I have plummeted in her estimation as a human being for not immediately yammering back the complementary line.
I turn to Amber and say, "I am not going to talk to people at Otakon. I am no good at it."
The fashion is not, as I hoped, gothic Lolita. Instead, it looks like post-apocalyptic hipsters raided an exploded stuffed animal factory. The models are suitably enthusiastic in these ridiculous clothes, though I know they receive nothing for their efforts (Amber missed the deadline to be in the fashion show this year).
Throughout Otakon, I can only feel like a tourist. Amber wears a mask she made and a bodice the first day, brightly colored randomness and a party hat the second. Though she cosplays no one aside from herself (and despite the fact that the latter costume is repeatedly mistaken for an anthro-Pinkie Pie from Friendship is Magic), she moves almost invisibly among the throngs. Even were I in full anime armor, I would feel I did not belong. I don't necessarily want to belong among this fandom, though I don't begrudge them it aside from in order to tease (as I would anyone in any fandom, myself included). I know I am diving into a complete unknown, informed only by memories of chortling men clutching nude anime girl body pillows (which are on sale from several vendors).
As we exit the convention center proper for lunch, I see a stream of costumed people sweltering in the summer sun, a line that must venture into the thousands, covering the walkway, going down a staircase, and covering a sidewalk for at least two blocks. These are the people who waited until this morning to pick up their badges. Amber tells me neutrally that they will probably get in before nightfall and I am grateful at her foresight.
Amber suggests we watch a showing of the last two episodes of Magical Girl Madoku - a show I've never heard of before but whose character is on some of the badges - even though it is billed "it will totally spoil you." I can't be spoiled if I have no intention of ever watching the rest of the series. Snarkiness aside, I do admit to tearing up, despite the squirrel-like chattering of one of the main character. I think we will just pretend I wept from sleep deprivation and not that I found it the least bit affecting. (I do, however, hate the albino ferret cat whose whole purpose in the show is to ruin the lives of girl, though the otaku just seem to find him adorable and not satanic.)
All through the con this first day, I sought out islands of comfort and familiarity. I can't divorce myself from what is going on around me, I can't pretend that I am an anthropologist studying a curious subculture. This is their land and I am the interloper, though I imagine most do not actually notice or care, too busy scoping out female Lokis. Amber provides a portable island (believe that is called a boat...), my editing work another, but I rely on neither. I am present and non-judgmentally aware, and I am not without enjoyment.
Amber offers to lead me to a panel on the yokai, cultural beings that reoccur through anime and manga. I know very little about Japanese mythology and monsters, but that is definitely a subject on which I crave elucidation. The presenter is affable and intelligent and I find myself better for his explanation of the transformative nature of the yokai, already trying to figure out how to shoehorn them into my next book or the one after. At the crossroads of myth and academia, I can fashion a shelter.
We go to a concert, though I do not know of either of the musicians. The first is a Japanese singer, quite possibly playing up the stereotypical Western assumptions of the demureness of Asian women. She all but giggles into her hands between each song, but her voice is quite pretty and her piano playing is adept, so I don't mind. I do not understand the lyrics of the songs she plays, though people cheer when she does a cover of some anime theme.
The next band is K-pop and, frankly, not good. They overtly, almost ostentatiously, lip sync in mostly English - a language I do not think all of the members know - but the crowd gushes over them, cheering even as they step off stage and a PowerPoint informs us of their ages and heights in centimeters. At one point, their equipment malfunctions and two of the members are tossed on stage to do a festive jig until the audio is restored.
Outside the concert, I wait for Amber to get out of the bathroom. As I lean against a railing, feeling fairly exhausted and dehydrated thanks to food poisoning, I see the flash of a camera. I look around, expecting that Halo Kitty or some other particularly clever costume is on display. Instead, I see two girls in generic anime garb looking at me and giggling.
"You are the Beatles!" the thicker one says.
"What? No, I'm not! I'm me, this is just how I look," I protest. "Why would someone cosplay that, especially here?"
They have no answer to this question, they are just delighted to have captured a photo of John Lennon.
Leaving the con, Baltimoreans linger outside in loose bands. One of these boys, shirtless and sagging, shouts sexual violence at Laurel. All of the training I have received at work - how to defuse a situation, how to defend myself, how to take down an enraged person twice my size - flashes through my mind. I feel Laurel grow tense but, as she does not give him a reaction that will show weakness, he returns to his pack to bark at another woman. I am furious that Laurel should have to put up with this. Given all the money this convention is bringing to the city, I would hope the police would be a bit more proactive in protecting the convention goers. It makes me realize that, whatever flaws they may have, none of the convention goers made me feel as uncomfortable as an unfortunately average example of urban adolescent masculinity.
There is much I wanted to see, but which is not possible. I miss the burlesque, but I am also not sure any such event happened this year, aside from a panel on how to do burlesque ("take off all your clothes, but not quite"). There are nightly raves that I am too exhausted to try to find. Two people could attend Otakon for a decade and never meet or ever end up in the same panels.
My only possible complaint about Otakon (other than whining that I don't get it and pouting that no one will explain it to me) is a slimy underbelly. While ninety-five percent of the attendees are having genuine fun, there is five percent concentrating their weird on the outside that set my teeth on edge. I could do without people all but screaming, "I am being weird! Do you see?! Pay attention to how I have blue hair! Isn't that strange?!" Worse by far, though, are those people who fetishize Asian culture to the point of confusing a whole race for Pokémon (tip: do not all but wet yourself when greeted by a Japanese woman dressed normally) and those creeps taking numerous, unsolicited pictures of the few underdressed, barely pubescent teens (one of whom said to a tiny girl, and I quote, "You will be pretty on my website!"). In any community, there are creeps and jerks, but the rest of Otakon is so overtly pleasant and supportive that misbehavior is glaring.
In the end, the closest analogy I find to being at Otakon is when a few friends of mine in middle school went to camp together. Though they were not friends when they left, they returned full of inside jokes funny to them alone and then exploited these at the expense of making sense to anyone else. Multiply that by about fifteen thousand and you will get the feeling of being at Otakon without a daunting knowledge of the source material. They shout their own memes (too liberally sprinkled with Family Guy derived non-sequiturs) and I give up on asking Amber to translate from otaku to English.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the Masquerade, a selection of skits (but mostly awkward dances to Michael Jackson or LMFAO) where those on stage get catcalls and applause simple by appearing in a t-shirt or costume with a few smudges of grease paint. I do not know whom they are supposed to represent. They do not introduce themselves. Why should they bother for the minority on the outside?
Soon in Xenology: Male friendships. Amber's father.