In our work life we always think our contributions to the end product are what matter. They aren’t.

The thing you realize at the end of the day is that the only thing of any lasting importance is the adventures of the people you worked with.  Although the cultural context in which my colleagues lived out their adventures was fully Japanese, it held the same fascination with the unknown possibilities that light up every young person’s eyes as they begin their career.

We’re not always conscious of it but we all adopt well understood cultural roles in our workplace.  At Subaru, these were Japanese rolls.  The matronly woman who was mother to all of us; the slightly ditzy girl who hadn’t a clue but was so sanguine you couldn’t help like her; the driven genius who would meditate on a single problem for weeks before uttering a word and; the samurai stoic who knew more than anyone what rolls were being played and played Go with all of them.  Although all of them were brilliant to the point of genius and all had doctorates, we were never allowed to call them “doctor”.  We could use the honorific term “san” but if we said “sama”, which is a term of higher respect, they would wince.  Whenever we made the slightest contribution; editing a paper for publication in English or add an idea to the discussion they would include our name in the publication.

Thrown into that mix were several of us westerner’s with varying degrees of understanding, patience and tolerance who tried desperately to find a roll within the closed milieu of the Subaru club.  Three of us, a young German programmer (I think he works at the Max Plank institute in Heidelberg now), a Hawaiian native (we’re still in touch) and myself decided that the best way to start would be to learn the language.  We signed up to take lessons in Japanese in Hilo and tried using it a little at work.  Word quickly got around and we all shared with each other how much of a difference we felt in how we were accepted by our employers and colleagues.  We were invited to parties on weekends, introduced to honored guests and generally enjoyed a much closer relationship than those non-Japanese employees that felt the facility should have flown an American or Hawaiian flag.

Working with people is never easy.  It shouldn’t be.  It’s getting outside ourselves and into places that are foreign that forges mind and soul into something worth living with. I will always be grateful to the people of Subaru who helped shape mine.

IRCS5[1]

Advertisements