Part 1 :: The End of our American Dream
We loved living the fast-paced American life, where for 5 years we spent every other weekend vending at the biggest comic conventions from San Diego Comic-Con, to Anime Expo in Los Angeles, to New York Comic-Con. It was our dream for many years when we lived in Canada, to sell at those events, and we were lucky enough to experience it! We met many amazing customers across the US, some even came back year after year to buy our merch, talk to us, or even just to say hi. We miss you all. (Image below from New York ComicCon 2018:)
However, being Canadians (we had a 5 year US visa, with the option to renew), we had to be vigilant of political affairs. As a two-person company, we felt the negative impact of being squeezed by government policies that did not benefit us as a small company. Between 2016-2018, we had overworked ourselves to a point of exhaustion without much reward. Convention sales were declining year after year, international stores were dropping us left and right due to increased tariffs on US exports to the EU, our costs were going up as a result of a tariff war on imports from China and Mexico. We were working much harder for much less.
In 2018, not only did our convention sales decline from previous years, but we noticed people in general were becoming less friendly and some becoming more aggressive towards us. Previously we went to an average of 15-20 cities each year to vend at different comic/anime/horror conventions without any problems.
But in 2018 alone, Aldora, being of Chinese descent, had 3 different racist incidents happen to her. I'm not going to go into too much detail about the context of each situation, but just wanted to point out that previous to 2018 we had gone to 100+ conventions across Canada, and the US, and we never had any issues like these:
1- While at the Chicago airport, Aldora went out of her way to help an old couple get into an elevator safely. We were on our way to a convention and we were carrying all our boxes and balancing our convention materials. Instead of thanking Aldora, the older woman didn't acknowledge the help and instead thanked the elevator for getting her to her floor. Ignoring the help is one thing, going out of her way to thank the elevator is another level of rudeness altogether. We later saw the same older couple while exiting the airport and when the woman recognized Aldora she quickly looked the other way.
2- At a quiet convention in Nashville, two attendees stopped by our booth wearing confederate patches on their jackets. While Aldora was explaining our brand to them, the attendees looked around at our designs and merchandise but wouldn’t look at her in the face or acknowledge her, even though there was no one else around. After Aldora finished her pitch, the attendees dismissed her and walked away. Not really the Southern hospitality we were expecting.
3- At NYCC, while safely in our booth, a teenage boy waved Aldora over so he could flash her the “white power” hand sign.
Going around the country, and putting ourselves in vulnerable situations seemed less and less like a good idea. We became very worried that this was becoming “the new normal,” as we realize that it had felt increasingly unsafe to travel for conventions.
Both of us being immigrants and having seen first hand the negative ripple effects of the US government’s policy changes, we did not feel welcomed anymore. We originally planned to stay in the US for a minimum of 10-15 years, but with our visa renewal looming in April 2019, we began to consider a possible exit strategy. If we wanted to continue Akumu Ink, we could not go back to Canada due to its smaller market and very high shipping prices, so our next location would have to be somewhere in Europe. We considered the UK, but with BREXIT happening, our next best choice was the Netherlands. Immediately, we contacted an immigration lawyer in Amsterdam who told us to move there and start the application from within the Netherlands. The finality of this meant that we had to close our warehouse in the US and start over in a new country. (Below image is our warehouse in Chino, California:)
Part 2 :: The move from California to the Netherlands
In January 2019, not really sure if we were making a good decision, we packed our warehouse into a 40’ container, with the rest of our belongings. Everything was sent on a ship headed for Europe.
The self-employment application for the Netherlands has a success rate of 7%, so we were taking a big risk of possibly being turned back to Canada. Because of this insecurity, we did not create new merchandise; but despite it, we kept forcing ourselves to stay positive and create new designs, print, and ship them to all our wonderful customers.
When Covid hit in the beginning of 2020, we entered another level of stress and depression that we had never experienced before. We still didn't have the visa yet, so the possibility of being asked to leave Europe was always at the forefront of our minds. Everyday was like a dark tunnel, not knowing if we would be allowed to stay in Europe, or if we would be required to pack up our dreams, return to Canada, and shut down Akumu Ink forever, all during a global pandemic. We took 1.5 months off in April 2020 due to our depression. We literally shut all the blinds and cut ourselves off from the world during that time. We reached a point where we had to prioritize our mental health above anything else.
In January 2021 (2 years after we began the application process to the Netherlands), our lawyer called to let us know that we were now approved to stay in the Netherlands indefinitely! With this burden lifted, we are now able to think positively and more creatively. We have been holding back for the last 5 years on making fun new merchandise, and now we finally got the green light to start. Photo below is of us at the IND (The Immigration and Naturalization Service) getting approved to stay in the Netherlands:
We are very excited that we have entered PHASE III of our brand (Phase I: Canada, Phase II: USA), to establish Akumu Ink in Europe! We appreciate all of our customers who we have met during this journey and those who follow us on social media. We hope you will continue to be a part of our little adventure.
Thank you for reading,
-Aldora Kwee & Joey Poulin
Creators, owners and operators of the Akumu Ink brand.