News & Politics

A Q & A With Former National Cherry Blossom Festival Goodwill Ambassador Michelle Aldridge

The 2011 ambassador shares her experience with the program and her memories of aiding with tsunami relief efforts in Japan.

Photograph courtesy of Michelle Aldridge.

As the National Cherry Blossom Festival rolls around each year, the blanketing shades of pink serve as colorful tokens of the friendship between the United States and Japan. But the festival does more than just commemorate a past alliance. Each year, its Goodwill Ambassador program facilitates the continued nurturing of that bond.

Eight young adults with a passion for Japanese culture, international relations, and community involvement are chosen each fall by a committee of festival board members to be goodwill ambassadors. During the Festival, they act as cultural liaisons, helping to bridge the gap between the two cultures. They attend most of the signature events to field visitors’ questions, and also give lessons on the history of the cherry trees to schoolkids at DC charter and public schools. This year’s goodwill ambassadors include college students whose interests range from combating human rights abuses in Asia to assisting Japanese companies that acquire patents in the United States.

While the term of a goodwill ambassador usually lasts only as long as the festival, there are occasional exceptions. Michelle Aldridge, who works at World Learning, was part of last year’s talented group, and was given the opportunity to remain a goodwill ambassador for three months longer. She was sponsored by the festival to help with the relief efforts in Japan after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

We recently spoke with her about her experience as a goodwill ambassador.

What sparked your interest in Japanese culture?

I’m from the Metro Detroit region, and when I was about ten years old, we met a Japanese family that came on an exchange with Mazda. This family had two daughters about the same age as my sister and me. Despite the family’s lack of fluency in English, our mothers hit it off and my sister and I became very friendly with the girls. That was my first connection with Japan, and it left me wanting more.

Tell us about your role as a goodwill ambassador.

It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. A lot of what we did was youth-oriented. We went to various schools to teach the kids about Japanese culture and the history of the cherry trees, and even help them plant one. As official representatives, we were there to answer any questions the visitors had during events. We went to the Japanese embassy, where we could use our language skills or just make connections. It was great to be part of the parade and also get to meet [Japanese ambassador to the United States] Ichiro Fujisaki. I had never been to DC before, so just to be able to see the blossoms and be in the city during that time of year was an amazing experience.

How did you get the opportunity to go to Japan, and what did you do there?

Since I served as a goodwill ambassador soon after the natural disaster in Japan, I wanted to do something to help out. I mentioned this in passing to the director of the program, and to my surprise she thought it was a great idea, especially in honor of the upcoming centennial celebration.

I was based out of Ishinomaki, one of the cities most affected by the tsunami. I volunteered with an organization called It’s Not Just Mud, and we spent a lot of time shoveling the toxic mud left by the tsunami and rebuilding houses. On top of the relief work, I was able travel to other cities in Japan as representative of the National Cherry Blossom Festival and renew professional ties. I also worked with the US Girl Scout troops based in Japan as well as the Japanese Girl Scouts, and helped with a program where we made friendship bracelets and origami cranes together. It was so special to see these young girls exchange friendship bracelets. In Hiroshima I was able to catch up with my childhood friend from Japan, who also bought me a friendship bracelet, and so it seemed to come full circle.

Photograph by Yannick Hiryczuk.

Was there an especially poignant moment during your time in Japan?

It was my final day of volunteering, and it was the first time it had snowed after the tsunami. We were going to an area where nobody was allowed to rebuild, as it had been completely wiped away by the tsunami. It’s hard to describe, but if you can imagine, this area was covered with the debris of washed-up personal belongings as far as the eye could see. We were there with a woman who wanted to plant a heart-shaped memorial garden where her house had stood. She shared her story with us about all she’d been through, but she still seemed so hopeful. It reminded me of the Japanese word ganbaru, which means to just do one’s best. As the snow fell, we dug into the dirt with her and planted those flowers. An important lesson I took away from that is that relief doesn’t just mean physically rebuilding homes or cleaning up after the disaster; it also means healing memories and rebuilding a community.

Would you recommend the Goodwill Ambassador Program to others?

I highly recommend it because I think it’s rare to find a program like this that promotes international exchange and citizen diplomacy for young people. It’s a fun way for young people to grow as leaders, make great friends, and impact a community.

The application for next year will be available this summer, but for more information on the program, contact Elissa Staley.

See our Cherry Blossom Festival 2012 guide here.