Growing up, my world was always very small. When I was young my best friend was Monica, a girl who lived two houses down. Her family moved to a nearby city 10 miles away but I only saw her again once.
When I started using the internet in 1995 it was through a BBS provided by a local college. I made an email friend who lived 25 miles away that I only ever spoke on the phone with.
In 1999 while I obsessively read Shirley Manson's studio diaries she seemed like she was a world away. Really, she was at Smart Studios in Madison, a 45-minute drive that might as well have been the same distance to China and back.
As time passed and I grew older it felt like my world kept expanding too. Once I started driving myself I felt like I could go anywhere. At least, anywhere within a two-hour drive or so.
At the same time I was using the internet more and more and discovered people who I liked talking to more than my friends at school. I realize this sounds obvious now, but at a certain point my world stopped expanding geographically and instead started growing socially. In addition I went off to a college where I found people with the same interests as me. My world was growing but now inside my mind instead of across a map. And both sources told me about the New World that I was just on the cusp of. I was about to sail over the horizon into a world full of promise that was unlike anything else.
For me, the gateway to the New World is the Hyatt Regency Hotel near O'Hare airport in the suburbs of Chicago. I had been to Chicago before, with my parents and on school field trips, but this time was different. This is my first anime convention and that made every difference.
I was obsessed with anime while in high school. Really, really obsessed. When I went to college it was the only defining characteristic about myself. I had been reading about anime conventions on the internet for years at this point, and now I was at the big times: Anime Central. The Midwest's largest anime convention (and at one point number three in the country).
Anticipation in the weeks before Anime Central was nerve-racking. My friends in the nerd club at school tried to warn me what it would be like but until I saw it for myself it meant nothing. And then the day in May came.
When we got to the hotel, I experienced a complete sensory overload. I thought the hotel was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
I realize in retrospect is just a typical atrium style hotel, but I had never seen anything like it. It was beautiful to me.
Just the sheer sense of excitement that you could walk out of your hotel room and see all the other floors people walking about was too much for me. Never mind the thousands of other nerds there who looked and sounded just like me. It was Thursday night, so there were a few people in costumes but it was nothing compared to what I saw when I woke up Friday morning and walked around.
If you are not familiar, anime conventions are more cosplay (or costuming) focused than any other nerd event, more than Comic Con, or PAX or Gen Con. It seems like 50% of the attendees or more are wearing costumes. If you have never seen it in person, all I can say is it is one of the most fantastic things. When you are new to conventions like I was, you could literally just spend all day walking around identifying the different costumes and asking people for photos. All the years of watching anime alone in your bedroom were prepping you for this moment.
Thing was I felt like I belonged here. Even more so then when I went to the tiny anime viewing room at Gen Con, even more than when I talked about anime on the internet, even more than the people I met and hung out with at the nerd club at my school. For 48 hours I was going being accepted by these people without question.
Why would anyone ever want to leave a place like that?
My world started growing at an exponential pace, both socially and geographically. As time went on my interest shifted until I was no longer watching anime, a few years later I stop reading Japanese manga. Now it is just distant memory.
Every year I think I should take it up again but I have trouble sitting down to watch even the shows that I used to love. People always told me that it was just a phase that I would some day grow out of. I hate that they were right.
But I would not change those years for anything. They are a large part of who I am, even if I barely recognize myself now. And the memories of those conventions are precious to me: Chicago in the spring of 2003, New York in the summer, Dallas and Baltimore in 2004, Chicago again in 2005 and 2006. They are some of the most important memories I have.
I went back to Chicago a few weeks ago to visit friends, but first I made a stop at my gateway to the new world. Walking into the lobby brought all the memories back and I was happy to find that unlike other childhood experiences, the hotel still felt large and magnificent to me. Even without the crowds of costumes, the kids hanging out on the benches or waiting in lines to get into the ballrooms, it was still beautiful.
It will always seem beautiful to me. I will always want to go back.