My Quest to Anime NYC 2021
It was the kind of excitement reserved for Christmas mornings, before I learned that Santa wasn’t real. I woke hours earlier than usual, and it was a form of torture to spend each passing minute still in bed. Anticipation made my fingers curl and uncurl. It was the morning of Anime NYC 2021 and my mind fluttered tirelessly like a bird in a cage.
I’ve been going to anime conventions–– an equivalent to comic-con but instead of comics the emphasis being on anime, manga and Japanese culture–– since late 2017, attending Maryland’s Katsucon and Washington D.C.’s Otakon with friends annually until leaving for college. Conventions usually span three days and can have on average 21,000 (Katsucon 2019) to 34,000 (Otakon 2021) in attendance per year. Many show up for the elaborate cosplays, or to wait in long lines to get autographs from an assortment of guests. There are two areas I spend the majority of my time at conventions: Dealer’s Den, where booths sell official merchandise, and Artist Alley, where hundreds of independent artists sell stylized fanart or their own original art. It’s a fantastic way to get rid of your most recent paycheck and decorate your bedroom walls.
Perhaps the most important part of a convention is the sense of community it provides. Many attendees find it hard to find people who share their interests, so conventions centering those passions often craft long-lasting friendships. At my first convention, a girl stopped me to compliment my cosplay. Graciously, I thanked her, and we exchanged Instagram handles before parting ways. The conversation in its entirety probably lasted three minutes tops, but we became extremely close and have attended numerous conventions together since.
The Anime NYC 2021 convention would be different for a lot of reasons. The last time I went to a convention was Anime NYC in 2019. I didn’t dress up because I accidentally left all my cosplays at home. This year, I had spent weeks painstakingly planning out my outfit to cosplay from “Genshin Impact,” a Chinese action role-playing game I logged hours on during the pandemic, furiously fighting monsters into the late hours of the morning. I was going as my favorite character from the game, the Electro-powered pirate captain Beidou.
I was ecstatic to finally attend a convention again, but my excitement was mixed with misgivings. Mental illness was a newer, bigger beast to tame this time around. Pre-pandemic, I still struggled with anxiety, but I was a busy woman and constantly being on the go made it something I could wrestle into a box in the back of my brain. Post-pandemic, my anxiety grew razor-sharp claws. It became debilitating. I became agoraphobic. I would be mid-sentence–– in class or with a friend–– and a wave of anxiety would hit me like a sack of bricks, queueing an instant cold sweat, migraine and a surge of vomit in the back of my throat. I made excuses to get out of meeting friends if it meant having to leave my small little Brooklyn bubble, deemed the “Safe Zone” in my mind. The subway became my nightmare–– too many sweating people jabbering in my ear, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in place like sardines for intervals of twenty minutes. I walked instead and, when it was inevitable, carried ginger chews and puke-friendly plastic bags as a precaution.
I prayed I would feel okay that Saturday, hesitating over buying my non-refundable Anime NYC 2021 ticket. I was like a protagonist from an action anime, nervously preparing for a journey that would test my resolve and strength. Would I return home triumphant? I took a deep breath and clicked “Purchase.” Please, just let it be how it used to.
Part I: The Call to Adventure
The night before, I anxiously packed my convention bag. I’ve dragged the same small pleather backpack along to every convention. Hanging from it is one of my favorite charms, a purple-tinted boy vomiting worms and beetles, eyes rolling back grotesquely. Though this charm has since been discontinued, the artist has a booth almost every convention and I usually end up caving and buying a new piece from him.
The contents of my bag included the following:
3-Day AnimeNYC badge, advertising the upcoming “Blade Runner” game
My vaccination card, dog-eared
My furry red wallet from Min and Mon, with a cyclops squid on the front, fat with my most recent paycheck and itching to be spent
Apartment keys, easier to find because of the blue voodoo bear and BT21 Baby Tata plush on the keyring
Two protein bars and a bag of white cheddar Cheez-its
Bobby pins, hairbrush, contact case, a few extra masks
A few CVS plastic bags, just in case
Cosplay, or dressing up as your favorite character from a video game/show/book, is a great way to creatively express your love for a franchise. Although cosplay is a staple of most nerd gatherings, at anime conventions it’s a whole new beast. Dolly lenses, brightly colored wigs with elaborate hairstyles and heavily transformative makeup is common dress attire. Getting into character for a convention is one of my favorite parts. As somebody with a passion for makeup and a love for detail, nothing quite matches the transformation process of cosplay. It’s a race against time because I could spend half a day just perfecting my makeup alone.
I ironed and hung up my Beidou cosplay. Her outfit consists of a black leotard under a bright red sleeveless qipao––a traditional Chinese dress closely associated with the women’s liberation movement––with side slits and the chest area cut out. Her qipao is adorned with gold cloud and anchor patterns, which remain a motif on her thigh-high boots, elbow-length fingerless gloves, and fur-lined shawl. Beidou has waist-length dark brown hair tied back with four intricate gold hairpins: three cloud-shaped and one ending in a pale blue tassel. One of her eyes is a ruby red, the other covered by an eyepatch.
I went to bed earlier than usual, but excitement and nerves kept me awake anyway.
Part II: The Departure In the past, getting ready together has been a group tradition. Some of my best convention memories involve being crammed with two or three of my friends in a shoebox hotel bathroom, dancing obnoxiously to music in various levels of costume. This time I would be getting ready alone. The morning of November 20, I woke up around 7 AM to get myself a Ginger Ale from the corner store a few doors down from my apartment. My body knows how to get itself into costume. I allow myself to zone out and launch into my “getting ready” process, which looks like this:
7:30 A.M. Stand in your tiny apartment bathroom, blasting nostalgic anime intros and bubblegum K-pop. Lay out all your makeup like a surgeon about to get down to business. Your face is puffy with sleep in the mirror, but the prospect of a blank slate pushes you out of sleep to wakefulness in minutes. Braid your hair back and pull on a wig cap.
7:35 A.M. Even after five years of using them for cosplay, you are really shitty at putting in contacts. You use Sweety Candy Red colored lenses from Uniqso, bright red irises with a black border. They never stick to your dry eyes the first handful of times, and twenty minutes later you usually have gotten one in but are tearing up too hard to get the other. Blink your eyes rapidly. Wet tracks trail down one cheek. Only one contact this time, thankfully, because Beidou wears an eyepatch. Your stomach grumbles a complaint––nausea or hunger? You aren’t used to eating breakfast. Choke down a few tater tots.
8:00 A.M. Cover your bushy, caterpillar brows like drag queens do. Grab a glue-stick, non-toxic, and drag it in an upwards motion across your eyebrows. Slather it on thick, right down to the grain. Using a spoolie, feather the hairs upwards until they resemble the plumage of an exotic bird. Next, blot on red color corrector to counteract the green-ish, blue-ish undertones in your dark eyebrows. Alternate between layers of setting powder and concealer until they’re as covered as you can get them.
9:00 A.M. Painstakingly draw on a single thin arching brow with brown eyeshadow and a pencil brush. It makes you look like Joan Jett from the ‘80s. Put red eyeshadow in the outer v of your eye, go over it with a more precise red eyeliner and put a gold glitter on the inner corner of your tear duct. Smoke out the bottom with black and crimson before drawing on tiny fake eyelashes with eyeliner. Glue tiny individual lashes on your lower lash-line and then a spiky tapered lash on the top of your eye. Finish the plate of tater tots, which taste like cardboard.
10:00 A.M. Step into the costume. First, shimmy into the black mini shorts and the thigh-high leggings with a gold design snaking up the calves. Tie them around your thighs as tight as they’ll go and fasten on the gold tassels. Pull on the black 6-inch platform boots, borrowed from your roommate, with socks stuffed in the toe area to make up for the foot size difference. On goes the eyepatch, the earring, the fur cape, the gloves and elbow pads. Beidou’s in-game source of power is the Electro Vision, a diamond-shaped gem inlaid in an intricate gold octagonal border. Tether it securely to your belt.
10:30 A.M. Late last night is when you realized the site you bought the costume from forgot to send you the piece to secure the pins. Spend an hour feverishly dremeling the plastic down and arranging them in place. Beidou’s four plastic hair pins balance precariously from the clip-on bun secured in the back of the wig, held up by about 75 bobby pins, enough hairspray to knock a small cat unconscious and the will of God. You are very scared of removing the wig from its resting place on the Styrofoam mannequin head to transfer to your own skull, so you do it as slowly as possible with bated breath. The nose-length bangs blind you as you struggle with the wig for a few minutes. No pins hit the floor or go crooked. The surgery is a success!
10:50 A.M. Send a video to your parents, nerves momentarily banished and replaced with delight. Thrill surges immensely through your body seeing yourself dressed as one of your favorite characters, even better because everything came together how you hoped it would. Then, fight the urge to cancel and wrestle with an ebbing and flowing wave of nausea.
11:15 A.M. Open the door for your new Pratt friend to meet at your apartment. Realize he decided not to come in costume. Prepare to head into Manhattan for the convention. A migraine is already forming behind your ears. Wonder how you’re going to hold back your wig if you need to puke. Think about how Manhattan might as well be on the other side of the world, or the moon. Anxiety makes your stomach churn. Try not to think about your stomach hurting. Or puke! Nervously pocket a few extra Pepto Bismol. Tell your friend apologetically about your nerves and that you will be acting like a freak for the next hour at least. He is super cool about it. Be put slightly at ease.
12:00 P.M. Take the bus before transferring to the A train. Fight to ignore the feeling of vertigo itching at the corner of your vision. Do not think about the time you fainted on the subway and make normal conversation with your friend. Breathe a sigh of relief stepping back onto the concrete sidewalk. Feel a little better when a passing stranger tells you how awesome your costume looks. Walk fifteen minutes to the Javits Center, where the convention is being held, pausing to hike up your thigh-highs an annoying number of times. Between the eyepatch and contact, your mobility leaves much to be desired.
12:30 P.M. A crowd of people, also in costume and clearly headed to the convention, shivers on a corner waiting for the crosswalk. A grown man recognizes Beidou and calls you Mommy. He makes such a racket that the other friends you’re meeting, both Parsons students and one of them a convention friend from high school, push through the crowd and find you. It’s instantaneous: you reunite with your friends and the anxiety cloud lifts, replaced only with unbridled excitement. Wait in line for about 45 minutes before entering the convention center.
Part III: The Initiation
My concept of time disappears.
Anime NYC 2021 hosted a crowd of 53,000 attendees. I’ve never participated in Black Friday, but I imagine it’s something similar to walking into the Javits Center that Saturday morning. My past convention experiences have all been hosted by hotels and, though still extravagant, the Javits Center was a welcome new setting. It was built specifically for events like conventions, with a soaring geometric layout enclosed by stunning glass walls that allow ample natural light to stream through.
An exclusive pop-up “Attack on Titan” manga gallery was the first thing visible after walking through the main doors. Crowds of (masked) people shuffled along like penguins, many in extensive cosplay and the others left to twist and duck around their outfits and massive props.
We waddled our way through the crowd, passing attendees scarfing down overpriced sandwiches and professional cosplayers (yes, it’s just as legit as professional gamers!) getting high-quality photos taken for whatever contact or wig brand they’re being sponsored by. I stop briefly to snap a picture of a phenomenal Denji (“Chainsaw Man”) cosplayer, complete with realistic-looking chainsaw arms made out of foam.
MiHoYo, the studio that created “Genshin Impact,” had a massive booth in Dealer’s Den with cardboard cutouts of popular characters and exclusive merch. Professional photographers snapped photos of Genshin cosplayers against a stunning backdrop from the game. I stood off to the side, watching the game trailer they put together on a car-sized television, when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was one of the photographers holding a massive camera, with an official badge hanging from his neck.
“Niiiiice Beidou,” he said to me, “We’re getting photos of con-goers in ‘Genshin’ cosplay for promotions. Do you mind if I get a few photos? Maybe a video too?”
“Of course,” I gushed, striking a pose. I put one hand on my hip and flexed with the other, trying to channel Beidou’s intimidating energy.
“Good, good,” The photographer nodded. “Now I’m going to get a video. Turn a little away from me and when I count to three, slowly turn around and cross your arms.”
I did what he asked, feeling like I was the subject of the Met Gala’s Glambot. A crowd had gathered to watch and take photos while I posed, leaving me flustered but pleased. Once I managed to escape back to my friends, who had waited patiently off to the side, we headed deeper into the convention.
I made a list of all of the vendors in Artist Alley I wanted to visit the night before. Since a few had pretty big followings, I worried I wouldn’t get the specific art pieces I’d been drooling over for months. My friends followed me through the ocean of attendees, elbows linked like a barrel full of monkeys to keep from being separated. My biggest priority was a limited-edition fanart from @xiaoarts, who I’ve followed on Instagram for many years, of the character Power from the manga “Chainsaw Man.” I got to the front of her booth and didn’t see the print clipped to her display.
“Do you still have Power?” I asked, daring to hope. She dug around in her stock under the table for a minute before coming back with the bright red print.
“This is my last one,” Xiao chirped, counting out my change. I was honored.
My friends and I lingered in Artist Alley for hours, walking up and down the aisles to look at over 400 booths. Later on, I met up with another friend from Pratt; she was in Zhongli cosplay, another “Genshin Impact” character. We walked around the convention but got stopped every other minute by somebody who wanted a photo. By the time we set our bags down and struck a pose, small hordes of people wanting pictures gathered. We would pose for a few minutes, reach to pick our belongings up and leave, and get stopped for another photo request. Great ego boost.
Part IV: The Return
I felt like we had only just arrived but suddenly it was 7:30 at night and Artist Alley was closing down. By the time we left, I was exhausted down to my very bones. It was dark and twenty degrees colder. Each step home was excruciating, my feet livid at being crushed into platforms too big for me for almost 12 hours. Wearing a heavy wig, tight wig cap and a mask all day resulted in a throbbing headache located right behind my ears.
I staggered into my apartment and immediately ripped the costume off. Too tired to even hang it up, I left it in a pile on my bedroom floor. The wig was all I removed thoughtfully, placing it safely back on the mannequin head. I took my contact out and scrubbed the makeup off my face, which took a while due to how thickly it was caked on. Nothing had ever felt so good.
Other than the mandatory masks, Anime NYC 2021 didn’t stray too far from my other convention experiences. The minute I set foot in the convention center and saw all of the amazing cosplayers and excited attendees, my anxiety vanished. I didn’t even realize it until I got home because I was having too much fun. Seeing my friends after so long, being in a costume I was proud of and having a full itinerary meant there was no room left for my anxiety. For the past year of my life, I have felt like there was a clear divide between who I was as a person Before––before the pandemic, before the crux of my mental illness– and After, the emptier shell of who that person once was. I had accepted, whether I realized it or not, that there were simple outings and events I loved to attend pre-pandemic that would never be the same. This convention experience was the first time in a while that I felt the Before and After overlap and had a fantastic time regardless.
My friends have already begun pestering me about Katsucon 2022. It would involve a feverish trip back home mid-February, dropping homework to lug a heavy suitcase all the way back to Virginia. It will be a pain, and then the convention will come and make it all worth it in the end. I’ve already started tweaking my Beidou cosplay––cutting her bangs a bit more precisely, adjusting the cape better to my shoulders, and making her sword from thick foam and PVC pipe. I can’t wait to be back in that shoebox bathroom once again with my friends laughing around me, dropping my contacts in the sink and searching desperately for my missing eyeliner, preparing for another perfect convention. -
Illustration by Dev Kamath