It was a warm August night, in a crowded room filled with nicely dressed people. The people who started shuffling inside gathered on tables. It was not a business meeting, nor was it a wedding reception, it was dinner for the staff of the largest Anime Convention in the United States. The day was a day of celebration. It was honor the staff who put so much time, sweat and tears into making the convention be the best it can be.
As I looked across the table, my staff assembled in smiles. I was taking pictures of people I saw as recently as a week ago, and some I haven't seen since the end of Anime Expo 2009. As the staff slide show went about, I gave a sad look to my assistant manager, Richard Phon, since only one of dozens of pictures I submitted was actually used as part of the slide slow. As the dinner went along, the Division Manager started announcing awards, to my complete shock, our division went first. I talk to the one of my friends sitting next to me, Sarah Dilworth and said, “don't worry, we never win any awards. Just sit back and relax.” My boss, Veronica Hernandez goes on to say, “The Manager MVP for the exhibits division is so energetic and he is always full of great ideas, the MVP is Kris Zoleta.” In complete shock I stand up and go to pick up my award.
Looking back on winning that award, it was an award that was the culmination of many years of hard work, of many highs and lows. The highs were ethereal and amazing, and the lows were so devastating that I questioned whether I should quit right there and never look back. Anime Expo is the largest anime convention in the United States, but to me it was an experience that is more than just a convention. It was a journey of knowledge and growth, it showed me the greatness of the human spirit, and I was exposed to the best and the worst of human nature. It taught me that to change the world, the most important thing you can do is to change yourself. This is my journey, from an attendee, to a staffer, to a manager. To tell my side of the story, the friends I made, and the lessons I learned in Anime Expo.
I. My first convention
I have been into anime for a very long time, but I never considered going to an anime convention. I first heard about it when my cousin Steve Navarro and Diana Navarro talked about it. For some reason, it just did not appeal to me, meeting people who shared similar interests for some reason repelled me to the idea of attending an anime convention. I even tried getting people I know into the hobby, with horrendous results.
One of the successful examples of getting a friend into the hobby was a friend I met in High School Show Choir, Sam Wall. I used to lend him my Ghibli DVD's, but he was not very impressed with the hobby. He didn't really get into it until a series named Yu-gi-oh game was shown on the air. After that he became pretty obsessed with the hobby. I certainly wont claim to be one of the reasons that he became a fan, but I certainly hoped that my exposure to different kinds of anime showed him that it could appeal to anyone.
After we graduated in 2003, I went to Riverside Community College. In there, I reconnected with an old friend from high school, Richard Phon. We used to talk quite a bit as high school freshman, but we never really became good friends until after we met again in Community College. Richard and I shared a bond, the love of shojo in its many iterations.
One night, during a break in Japanese class, I start talking to a classmate. She mentioned how she attended this convention in Anaheim called “Anime Expo.” I asked her what is this “Anime Expo” and she described it in a way that really got to me. That Friday, when I was hanging out with Sam, Richard, Allen Ruiz (who Anthony recently introduced to us), David Tu, and Anthony Santos I entertained the idea of going to this convention. I told them that I heard that an anime convention was in Anaheim, and that we should consider going. The upcoming convention was coming very soon, and we decided to go.
To prepare for Anime Expo 2004, we decided to pick up the badges on Day 0. I had no idea what to expect, so I just brought my confirmation receipt with me. Everyone had preordered a four day badge, save for Sam. Richard brought Leslie and David's receipt to pick up their four day badges too. We decided to wait in a very long line for the preorder badges. One of my favorite moments was when a girl from Merchandising walked up and down the line with T-shirts. She walked up to our group and asked us if we wanted to buy a shirt. Richard looks at her and he tries to haggle the price. The girl looks at Richard Phon and says, “If you don't buy a shirt I will cry.” The he looks at her with the funniest face and he says, “I am about to cry too.” The preorder line ended up taking around three and a half hours, but it was a time for great memories. We looked over in the line for the people picking up badges, and Sam was still waiting. Trying to hold back our laughter, we decided to go check out the local area for food. The night before Anime Expo, we stayed in Richard's house, and after that we carpooled to the Anahiem Convention Center.
|Sam and Allen Posing in the empty hall for opening ceremony|
|One of my first cosplay photos, ever.|
I did not attend Day two, on that day my little brother had his graduation party. During the party, I told my two cousins, Josh and Andrew about this amazing convention called Anime Expo. They were so entranced with my description they were able to convince their mom to sleep over in my house so we go to to Anime Expo the next day, I got my cousins into anime conventions. During day three, I had a chance to meet with my friends, we walked around and had lots of fun. I didn't bother attending day four because the scheduling block looked so pitiful.
II. An Accidental Staffer
Anime Expo was a fun experience, but we went back to regular life right after that. Sam found an anime called Kaliedo Star and insisted that I watch it, my cousins kept on talking about how good it was so I decided to buy the DVD's. I was on an anime site one day, someone was posting rumors about a Manga Library that was being created for Anime Expo. As a huge manga fan I was interested in visiting this “manga library.” A couple of months later, on the Anime Expo site, they listed a “job fair.” I was broke, without a job, so I decided to go to this job fair. The problem, I thought that this was job fair to get work in the anime industry, not a staff position.
On March 26, 2005, I headed off to the job fair with Sam, Allen, and Richard. To my dismay, this was not what I expected, but I adjusted quickly and started look at the tables. One of them was a table that said Merchandising. The guy behind the table was an energetic filipino guy who loved what he was doing, his energy was infectious because he got Sam. The guy looked at me and asked me if I wanted to work in Merchandising. The guy was Bernard Acero, a man who I would become very closely tied with since he would later become my mentor and good friend. I told Bernard that I would love to work for him, but I heard rumors of a Manga Library. Bernard pointed me to a table. I ran right to the table and told her, “I heard that there is a manga library, and I want to join.” I slammed the table and she was shocked at how energetic I was. The woman at the table gave me a staff application. She looked at me, and she said that a manager position was open. I figured that I have nothing to lose, so I also filled up the Manager application for Manga Library.
A week went by without a response, two weeks went by, then three weeks. I was so saddened by this lack of response I figured that I will never be staff. Then one day, I get an email letting me know that I got the staffing position for Manga Library.
III. Manga Library and AX 2005
I arrived early on Day 0 to help prepare the Manga Library. We were in the Marriott, right across the convention center. I picked up my badge and went to the room where we were located. That is when I met Ann Chang and her boyfriend George. The manager, Lyell arrived later with his assistant manager. After that, we assembled this flimsy plastic shelves. They were very poorly designed and the manga could fall through the holes in the shelves.
After we arranged the manga donated to us, we decided on shifts. I would be working the 6am shift with Eichi Kansai, an older Japanese man who I became close with very fast. It was two people per shift in two 3-hour blocks. The problem with this shift design came very quickly, you knew the person you worked with, but the 6 other staffers were a mystery. There was no team cohesion among the staffers in the Manga Library. When my shift ended, I would visit Sam in Merchandising, my cousins (Josh and Andrew), or my other friends.
|Manga Library back in AX 2005|
The shifts in Manga Library were so slow, people didn't know the department existed so I spent more time reading manga than signing in people. The check-in system was also really awkward because there was so much dead space that could have been utlized. During these shifts, I had a chance to talk to Eichi, who taught me everything he knew about the Japanese Manga Industry, Comiket, Doujinshi, and everything else.
AX 2005 was my first staffing experience and I found that there were many positives as a staffer. The biggest one is that you don't get bored like I did during Day 3 of Anime Expo 2004, since your time has to be shared between shifts and free time. The second was that we got food delivered to us, granted, the food was horrible, it was still food. It also forced me to interact with attendees, and through that I learned so much more about convention culture.
|We played cards before opening ceremonies on AX 2005|
At the end of the convention, we broke down the shelves and put back the books. I had a good long chat with Ann and got to know her better. After that, Lyell said he was going to China to do some missionary work. I didn't think much of it, but those words would lead to many events in AX 2006 that caused so much headaches and heartache that I was ready to walk away from Anime Expo forever.