Life Lessons From The Car Business

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this site, you know that I spent some time, eleven months, to be exact, working in the car business. I learned a lot of lessons during my time there, some more valuable then others, but none more meaningful than how wrong it is to judge others. Not only are you usually wildly inaccurate in your preconceptions, but in constructing them you also build yourself up to be someone you are not. This is a lesson I still haven’t fully learned yet, though perhaps I will never fully get over being judgmental.

In America, where who you are is so often tied to what you drive, what you drive is seemingly of paramount importance. Nowhere is this mentality more evident than among car salesman. The minute you drive onto a car lot, the salesman busy themselves with evaluating who you are and what kind of car you might buy, as if they’ve known you for years. Are you driving a beaten ‘93 Taurus? You’re buying a Hyundai or a Ford Focus. Do you have a notebook in your hand in which you compare prices and features? You’re looking for something Japanese, probably a Subaru. Old and driving a Cadillac? You plan to keep buying American, and what model of car isn’t really important as long it looks nice and has enough trunk space for two or three golf bags.

It’s been two years since I held that job, and I can still rattle off stereotypes like that so fast I scare myself. And this kind of stuff goes on all the time. There was a simple rule that I used to go by when appraising what people bought: If their new car had fog lights, the buyer was competent and well-off. Fog lights usually only come on the top-end models of cars; hence, whatever the car, if it had fog lights, I could assume that the person knew why they wanted that specific car, and that they wanted the most car for their money. Unless their new car was already a base-model subcompact, I judged the customer could do better by downgrading to a smaller car with more options (like fog lights). Quality tends to be higher. Oh, and always buy Japanese.

It was with this mentality that one day I found myself preparing a Dodge Caravan for a customer I had not met. (My job was of the cashier-checkout sort. I made sure the customer’s car was good to go and walked them through their final paperwork.) This Caravan had zero options. Nothing. Not even automatic windows, And it was a Dodge Caravan, which tend to be at the bottom of the minivan genre in terms of quality. I could not have been less impressed with this customer’s choice and available cash.

All that changed, though, once I sat down with the customer. Instead of a overweight, lower-class white mom with unruly children, as I had expected, I was met by a smart, competent, father of five. Throughout the course of the paperwork I learned that he was a minister of a small rural church, and that this was his first new car in over ten years. I tried to concentrate on being prompt and courteous, but inside I could not have been more ashamed of myself. I identified with more characteristics in this man’s life then perhaps any other customer I had encountered, yet a half-hour before I had been joking with one of the detailers about how cleaning this car was barely worth our time. I was a horrible human being.

In an earlier post I talked about how missionaries always drove vans, and how as kids we always bragged about them. At that moment, sitting at that desk, I looked at the man sitting across from me and felt like I had practically grown up in his family. He wasn’t looking for a fancy car, because he had more important things to care about, like serving God. In all likelihood he was more concerned about being grateful to God for providing for his needs, just like my parents were and still are, than about impressing others. And there I was, judging a person’s worth by what they owned.

I drove home that night a different person from when I had woken up. Before, it was easy to play the labeling game with the salesmen. Now I didn’t care. Before, I put stock in what I drove. Now it was a car that got me from A to B, a gift God had given me that I didn’t deserve. I drove slowly, the realization washing over me that nothing I owned was a credit to my own success. Everything around me was put there to show me God - to teach me lessons.


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Thanksgiving Thanks

Things I am thankful for this year.

-Parents who call me.
-Books for learning from
-Money for food
-My job, in this economy
-Working bicycles
-People to bicycle with
-Enough insulin
-A warm apartment
-Ample clothing
-Good health
-My church

All these things may seem may seem rather ordinary and boring, and I might agree, if you were only looking at them separately. But for all of these things to converge on one person? God is clearly blessing me.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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The Fleeting Value of Professional Sports When Viewed Through The Lens of a Traveller

As a kid, I was a huge sports fan. I watched sports whenever possible, played sports, and talked sports to whoever would listen. During my kindergarten and early elementary years I liked Japanese baseball, and followed teams like the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, Orix Bluewave, Seibu Lions, and Kintetsu Buffaloes with enthusiasm. Unlike in American sports, where a city or state owns a team, Japanese sports are sponsored by companies - the Yomiuri is a major newspaper, Orix is a financial firm, and Kintetsu and Seibu are both railway conglomerates. Sumo was another favorite sport, and for the first two weeks of every other month my family and I would crowd around the TV during the 5-6pm hour to watch the great wrestlers duke it out with one another. Participation in soccer during my later elementary years paved the way for interest in the Japanese soccer league, or J.League for short. Favorite teams included the Yokohama Marinos, Kawasaki Verdy, and Kashima Antlers. Sometimes my private soccer club would play the elementary prep teams of these clubs, who were always formidable opponents.

During this time I also followed American basketball with a passion, the Chicago Bulls being my favorite team to follow. Every morning I would tear through the newspaper to find the sports section and read up on the happenings in the NBA, halfway across the world. If the paper happened to run a picture of MJ, it was a glorious day for my scrapbook.

Card-collecting was another way I was in-touch with sports. I collected baseball, basketball, and occasionally football cards throughout elementary, but only basketball card collection continued throughout middle school. Basketball cards were a way for me to stay close to my American roots, and I took great pride in my collection. A far as I knew, the Japanese card-trading scene was non-existent, and I saw trading cards as a uniquely American thing.

Interest in following sports slowly waned beginning in high school. I still played sports, but just didn’t care about sports as a whole as much. I had other interests, I guess, like music, cars, and computer games. I went to see the occasional game, but as far as memorizing stats and removing newspaper articles, that had ceased.

I had a brief love affair with European football (Arsenal woo!) in the past few years, but for the most part I have avoided following sports too closely. This year I tried to follow the international Formula-1 racing circuit, but lost interest half-way through June.

All this to say, really, that the more I think about it the more I can’t help but opine that following sports with enthusiasm is merely a construct of increased proximity - a mild form of nationalism, as it were. Right now I live in Minnesota, whose Vikings are 9-1. I don’t really care about the Vikings, yet find myself caught up in all the excitement over their new-found success. Come Monday I inevitably wander over to NFL.com to see how they fared the previous weekend. ‘They’re in MY city, and them doing well reflects well on me,’ I poorly rationalize. Why should I care?

If passionately following sports is indeed a mild form of nationalism, then it all seems very silly to me, a third-culture kid. I’ve seen kids crazy about J.League, teens going nuts over the NBA, college kids raving about their favorite English footy team, and adults getting uproariously drunk and high-fiving over a touchdown against those worthless Packers. It’s all the same everywhere. And what difference does caring about sports make, if indeed you’re only excited about the sport because of it’s proximity to your residence? When you move a lot, like I have, it becomes rather tiring to have to start all over again with a new sport or team to match each new city. Teams win, teams lose, and over the long run it seems pretty pointless and of fugitive disposition to get excited over the present state of a team. Equally useless is reminiscing over how good your football team was ‘back in the day’ (pre-2000 for Detroit. Zing.) Are there not better things to spend time on?

Obsessing over a sports team is revealed to be the hollow joy that it is when you confront it a set of eyes that have spent time examining it’s evanescent qualities regardless of the home culture. The only logical choice to make is to either follow sports passionately wherever you are, which quickly becomes exhausting, or to disregard sports almost entirely, by which you risk potential alienation at the water cooler. This is not to say that following sports is bad; sports, all sports, are exciting, electrifying, and, hopefully, God-honoring. But you don't need to follow any kind of team to enjoy it. I simply think that knowing beyond the simple “Yeah the Vikes played Seattle last weekend and won” is not worth it. It is simply too broad a world out there to narrowly focus on one little corner .


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