12 April 2013

ID project: Lauren Orsini and the Genesis of a Fan

I meet a lot of people at conventions. Lauren first crossed my path at Otakon 2010, when I found myself tweeting at her during a panel I had "taken over" with some other fan scholars. Since then, she has helped me with my writing, introduced me to tons of other awesome people, and has contributed more than a few times to both my scholarly work and my personal ruminations. She runs the blog OtakuJournalist, and is currently compiling a series of lessons on how to pursue a career in documenting your fandom. 

But here, she takes a decidedly different route that speaking about journalism: this is the genesis of her fandom, something I knew nothing about personally, and find to be more than a little similar to my own journey into anime. And while she might call herself a "weeaboo" at one point in here, I leave it to the reader to determine if she is correct in her own self-assessment, or if her journey was indicative of many others.

The first time I ever watched anime, I was twelve years old.

It was my friend Rachel* that introduced me. At the start of sixth grade, we’d only known each other for a few weeks before I decided we were going to be best friends. 

Rachel’s house was in the older part of the neighborhood. I loved her home, which her parents allowed to accumulate with dust and possessions, and her garden, which quickly became a tangled wilderness each summer. Over on the new side of the development, my parents kept my house too clean to be cozy. We always had new things, which meant that nothing ever wore out enough to feel like it was mine. 

But the most fascinating part of Rachel’s house wasn’t the musty study, where we played Magic: The Gathering, or the wood-paneled basement with its orange couch and Super Nintendo, perfect for Chrono Trigger. It was Rachel’s older sister’s room, papered from ceiling to floor with print-outs of hundreds of wide eyed cartoon smiling faces. (This was before you could buy anime wall scrolls at the video store.)

Both Rachel and I thought her older sister, Leigh, was the coolest person on the planet, but now I realize she was a geeky teenager who was probably picked on a lot. She only ever brought one friend home. But whenever she was out of the house, we’d sneak into her room and stand in the center, surrounded on all sides by androgynous faces with streaming, multicolored hair.

Our first foray into anime was equally clandestine. We’d wait until Leigh went to her after-school art class, and would secretly “borrow” her tapes of The Slayers. Sure, it was a cartoon, but it was much more fascinating than the stuff my little sisters watched. Lina was a multi-dimensional character, so visually and verbally expressive. Watching anime made me feel cultured.

Even better was the experience. I was used to going to the movies with my family each weekend, remaining politely quiet the whole time. Watching anime with Rachel was interactive. Since the shows were subbed, Sharon and I could talk over the characters and share our reactions as loudly as we wanted. Both budding artists, we would pause the tape frequently and practice drawing the stills on the screen; they resonated with us more than any painting.

So much of our enjoyment from anime was analog. We’d spend long summer days sprawled out with our sketchbooks trying to recreate the detailed exoskeleton of Gundam Wing. We created (terrible) fan art and (horrendous) fan-fiction. We learned to write HTML, use a scanner, and master the earliest versions of Photoshop to share our creations with the world. That’s how I got into building websites. But while today, I use my site building skills to make money and teach aspiring journalists, back in 2001 my first website was a yaoi pairing shrine.

Soon I was more obsessed with anime than Rachel was. I covered my school binder with printed out photos of Zelgadis. I drew a manga for a boy I liked and put it in his locker. I was rapidly becoming what the kids today call a weeaboo, and I was quickly alienating myself as a loser among my cool-conscious peers. But every day when I got home from school, logged online via dial-up, and checked my AIM messages from fellow fans across the world, it made up for any slight, any harsh gesture I experienced at school.

I lost touch with Rachel when we went to different high schools, but I soon found a few new friends who liked anime as much as I did. We were, of course, still considered freaks. But I had my own group who understood me, people whom I still keep in touch with to this day. Some of them are even participating in my wedding!

When I was in college, I was finally able to attend my first convention, Otakon. I learned there was nothing special about me or my little group—here were tens of thousands of weirdos just like us. Actually, some of them weirded me out. But I had something in common with everyone here—I know what it’s like to feel alienated. So when I didn’t understand something I saw at a con, I asked about it. I’ve gotten some of my best interviews that way.

As an adult with an unusual work schedule, I now watch most of my anime alone. I love getting friends together and showing them a series that rocked my world, but usually I just have to lend them the DVD to watch on their own time. We’ve got jobs and obligations and we have to squeeze anime in between them. 

I still like anime, but watching it alone has made me realize that it’s not the shows that have obsessed me all this time. It’s the community. It’s the interactive experience of all geeking out together over something other people might not quite understand. 

Now that anime is very much mainstream, that’s going away in some regards, but no matter. I seek out fellow weirdos in other fandoms instead. I write about furries, Homestucks, and people in identities they haven’t quite figured out yet. I am always surprised by how amazingly normal, how irresistibly human they are. The goal of my favorite reporting projects has always been to expose the ordinary in people living a life not everyone understands yet. 

When I want to explain my fandom identity to other people, I tell them my job title (and blog name)—the Otaku Journalist. I find fandom energizing in all its forms, even if I don’t share in that fandom myself. I get plenty of criticism for my reporting (this IS the internet after all), but if I ever feel burnt out about why I do this, all I need to do is lean over the balcony at Otakon, watching fans have the time of their lives. 

*Names changed to protect the innocent!

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