First of all, the prologue: a couple days ago, I spotted an otaku on the Boston T. He was sitting in his seat with a Megatokyo bag around his shoulders and headphones on. I moved through the train to reach him, but I couldn't bring myself to start a conversation, and he got off at the next station after I reached him.
I've actually made a conscious effort to spot other otaku on this trip, especially after I picked up the first Inu-Yasha; he was the first one I'd noticed, and the only one before tonight.
Tonight, something interesting happened. My family and I were in a shopping area in Greenwich Village (circumstances will be explained in the full report). I'm not a shopper by any means, so as usual I was pretty numb, walking by the shops while the girls oogled the wares. It was because of this that Mom spotted it first: a comic shop across the street. She pointed it out to me, with a comment to the effect of "you might be able to find those books you've been looking for." ("Those books" are the IY manga, which I've been buying every time I enter a bookstore--I know that she knows what they are, but she still just calls them "books".) I crossed the street and entered the store.
Something you need to understand about me: I have never been a comic person. I'd seen comic books when I was little, but I was never very interested in them. Actually, the first comic book I'd ever been interested in was a manga--the summer before sixth grade, I went to a sleepaway program at UC Irvine for a week, and my roommate had brought Ranma 1/2 #1 with him. I don't think I knew it was Japanese, which was probably why I never tracked down other issues--I simply had no idea where to look.
So, this was my first time in a comic book store. It was actually about what I'd expected, although I was somewhat surprised that they had novels and such in it--there were several shelves of original Star Trek books, for example.
In any case, I looked over the shelves near the front. When I spotted the mangas*, I looked over them, and recognized most of them. I didn't see any IY, so I kept going through the store, finding the back area with more obscure stuff. I recognized less of these, but still spotted a few I knew of. I crossed back to the first area to see if I'd missed them, but my brother came in and told me that everyone was waiting, so I had to leave empty-handed.
Well, at least materially speaking.
When we started walking back, I realized just how much of that store I'd understood. I'd recognized a lot of titles, even ones I had little interest in or knew nothing more about--Angelic Layer comes to mind. More interestingly was what I'd known about some of them. For example, I noticed X/1999 in the back area. I remembered that it was a manga about a Y2K apocalypse. I also knew that it was by CLAMP, and as such was likely to contain innuendo, and that it was a less popular title, so seeing a bunch of them together was probably a bit unusual even in a comic shop.
Six months ago, I not only wouldn't have known any of that, but I wouldn't have cared.
For some time I've considered myself to be an "otaku-in-training". It's even in my LJ profile. I'm not really sure when I gave myself that definition, but it's been a month or two at least. In that time, I've picked up some interesting habits. Throughout this trip, I've been peeking into shops, restaurants, and anything else Japanese, displaying a curiousity I've never had before. I've picked up most of the two dozen or so words that make up the English otaku vocabulary, to the point that I sometimes think with them. At one point today, I saw some grafitti on a handrail; I thought it was "HAI" until I got a little closer and saw it was "HA!". At another point, I saw "LAIN" written with a finger in concrete, and wondered if the person who wrote it was an anime fan.
Still, I don't think I can consider myself an otaku yet. I still only have one disk of anime and four volumes of manga, after all--hardly an impressive collection. But where is the boundary drawn?
Tonight, I saw an otaku on the NY subway. He was reading what was obviously a manga while sitting on a stair in the station; he looked to be significantly older than me, but I'm not a good judge of age. I didn't approach him, because I didn't know what he was reading and didn't want to seem like an idiot.
I suppose I'll know I'm an otaku when I'd feel comfortable striking up a conversation with him.
*Yes, I'm using an English plural of a Japanese word. So shoot me.