Departing Cherry Blossom Queen Melanie Carríe Looks Ahead to a New Chapter
Jodie Chiemi Ching
In the 2018 Cherry Blossom Festival souvenir booklet published by the festival’s sponsor, the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, queen contestant Melanie Camille Michiko Carríe wrote: “I am inspired by the idea that obstacles are stepping stones towards the future we desire.”
Carríe persevered through the competition’s various phases and was selected the 66th Cherry Blossom Festival queen.
In two short weeks, her year-long reign will come to an end and the 25-year-old Carríe will present her crown, sash and scepter to one of the 11 young women now taking the same steps Carríe did a year ago.
In an “exit interview” with The Hawai‘i Herald, Melanie Carríe reflected on the past 12 months of her life. Beyond the sash and crown, she said she discovered a deeper, more meaningful experience that connected her with the community through culture, communication and teamwork.
An article in this year’s 67th Cherry Blossom Festival souvenir booklet reminds readers that until 1999, only “pure-blooded” Japanese American women were allowed to enter the queen contest: “Although it was considered a controversial move, the festival and the Junior Chamber succeeded in expanding its reach to the local multiethnic community that Hawai‘i is known for. In 2000, Vail Matsumoto became the first Queen with less than 100 percent Japanese ancestry. The following year, Catherine Toth became the first Queen without a Japanese surname. In 2002, Lisa Okinaga became the first queen with Hawaiian ancestry.”
In an email to the Herald, 2001-2002 queen Catherine Toth noted that when she competed, the change in blood quantum — from 100 percent Japanese to at least 50 percent — was still new and “somewhat controversial.”
“Of the contestants who ran that year, close to half were multiethnic, and two of us didn’t have Japanese surnames. You have to understand, I grew up hapa. To be multiethnic in this festival wasn’t a big deal to me; this is who I am. And I didn’t have any history with the festival prior to my participation, so I didn’t understand how controversial the decision to change the blood quantum was. I have always considered myself at least part-Japanese, and I understood the festival to be an opportunity to explore my heritage and connect with my culture. Being half-Japanese didn’t mean I wasn’t Japanese at all,” wrote Toth.
“When I was crowned queen, people kept pointing out the fact that I was half-Japanese, that I didn’t have a Japanese surname . . . I didn’t realize until after the festival was over how big of a deal it was to certain members of the community — good and bad. Some didn’t approve of the blood quantum change, others applauded it. Other young multiethnic women reached out and said they submitted applications for the Cherry Blossom Festival because of me, that I made it accessible. That was one of the best outcomes for me from the entire experience, to be honest.”
Nearly two decades later, six of the 11 contestants in this year’s festival, are hapa, reflecting today’s Japanese American community, which, like queens Carríe and Toth, is more multiethnic and culturally blended.
Melanie Carríe was born in Antwerp, Belgium, to Denyse Inouye Carríe, originally from Pearl City, O‘ahu, and Michel Carríe, a native of France.
Melanie and her younger siblings — sister Nadia and brother Matthew — relocated every few years because of their father’s work as a chemical engineer. Prior to settling in Hawai‘i in 2016, the family lived in Beijing, Scotland, Paris, Cincinnati and New York. After her maternal grandfather, Richard Inouye, passed away, Carríe realized that she didn’t know much about his life and was inspired to learn more about her Japanese heritage. With her mother’s encouragement, Carríe entered the Cherry Blossom Festival queen contest.
Although aikidö, ikebana and calligraphy are Japanese cultural practices, “it’s through the classes and meeting the instructors that you understand more,” said Carríe. “Because it’s all volunteer-based, this is all purely done because of passion for [their] craft, and to know people who have dedicated their lives to something like this is to know that their history, their culture . . . everything that makes them and their families who they are, is something very special and needs to be preserved.”
This past year, Carríe expanded her awareness of who she is as a Japanese American yonsei. “As an individual, I had always prided myself in certain character traits, and it’s interesting to see which ones I could almost correlate down like the line of my mom’s family, and see that it’s not exactly the same as what I get from my dad’s side of my family.”
Carríe said she and her siblings are the first hapa kids on both the maternal and paternal sides of her family. That made her realize that “as the generations go on, things become more diluted, which can be a good thing. But I think that there’s a lot of significance on cultural preservation and cultural understanding that younger people don’t acknowledge as much because, it is through those specificities of each culture that you find what’s really special and unique about each one. And so for me, I didn’t have that growing up. It was important to assimilate to other cultures [so] that you didn’t stand out too much.”
Hawai‘i offered more comfort and acceptance, said Carríe. “[When] I lived in Europe, we (she and her siblings) didn’t look European enough; [when] we lived in Asia, we didn’t look Asian enough. And so in those types of environments, there’s already kind of a preset bias of who you are,” said Carríe. “But after living in Hawai‘i, it would be hard to move away.”
As a result of her exposure to various cultures, Carríe developed an interest in how people of different cultural backgrounds communicate with each other. She speaks English, French and Spanish fluently and has conversational proficiency in Mandarin, Swedish — and, soon, Japanese.
As Cherry Blossom queen, she was able to experience another interesting dynamic in communication.
“One of my goals throughout this whole process has been to make sure people know we (Cherry Blossom court) are here to be representatives of the community, so don’t feel like you can’t talk to us,” said Carríe. “You know, questions you have or wanting to know about our experiences, [or] having concerns about whatever might be going on. And so I think probably what I’ve learned most is mainly handling communication in different situations, because this is not a position that I have been in before. If anything, it has just expanded my capability of being able to talk to people no matter where I am.”
Carríe enjoyed a number of exciting “firsts” during her year as queen, including wearing a kimono, being on television and traveling without her family. Wearing a kimono definitely thrilled her.
“Speaking with the women who work at Watabe [Wedding] (a local kimono dressing company), talking to them about why did you, how did you learn how to do this (kimono dressing)? What made you want to learn how to do this? And a lot of it is from family [traditions], but a lot of it is just a passion to preserve their history. And I don’t think people know how much effort it takes to put everything on. When you wear it, you want to do it justice because of how much work has been put into the actual garment.”
What does the future hold for Melanie Carríe? She says she wants to “give back.”
“I’m going to join the chamber after the court year is over.” She laughs about the cliché of wanting to give back to an organization that did so much for her, but then turns serious. Carríe is grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime experience she enjoyed and which helped her to grow as a person.
“The people you end up forming relationships with, in the chamber as well, it would be nice to be able to work with them as equal members rather than have that invisible wall of, ‘We’re on the court and you’re in the organization.’ I would like to be of assistance in making sure that [the] Cherry Blossom Festival can continue on for as long as possible. And so if I can offer [advice] and help . . . it’s important as someone who has been on the other side. Because [now] I know what it’s like to be in this position.”
Does Carríe have any advice for her successor?
“I think it’s important for every queen to know that you have no obligation to meet expectations set by other people if they’re not what you think is in your best interest.
“There’s a reason why they pick someone new every year. There’s a reason why you were selected, and it’s a big responsibility and you shouldn’t take it lightly. It’s also important to stay true to who you are, because if you try to be somebody else, it’s going to be really obvious. I think being genuine — no one can fault you for that.”
Melanie Carríe’s role as queen will come to an end on the evening of March 16, but she says her feelings of gratitude, genuineness and altruism for her experiences of the last year will last all her life.