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Bridging Cultures

Alumnus manages to table a player's bad manners during a tournament.

by Dean Congbalay (J86)

As I sat down at one of my first scheduled tables at the beginning of a recent duplicate bridge tournament in suburban Cincinnati, the woman to my left looked at me and said, "You should be at the Olympics."

"Pardon me?" I replied, more than a bit confused. She didn't think I was an athlete, did she?

"Oh, maybe you're not really Chinese," she said.

Ah, then it came to me. She wasn't commenting on my pudgy physique but my slanted eyes.

"Where are you from?" she continued.

"Columbus, Ohio," I said.

Now she was the one who was confused. "Where are you FROM?"

"Columbus, Ohio," I repeated.

Her bridge partner was a lady I know and greatly admire. She recognized what was going on and decided to quell the situation.

"He's from Columbus, Ohio," she told her partner in a tone that not only urged her to be quiet but also to pick up her cards.

Unfazed, the woman continued. "What is your heritage?" she asked me.

At that, I recognized that we had played this word game long enough.

"Filipino," I replied proudly.

Then she proceeded to tell me about a guy she knows who years ago traveled to the Philippines, met a woman and brought her back to the States. "She was a Filipino firecracker," she said. "Once she got her green card, she divorced him!"

Yeah, great … .

I've never been accused of being politically correct. Nevertheless, conversations like this amaze me. I know that there are millions of people who refer to themselves as Asian American or Mexican American or African American or German American. But I, quite frankly, have always regarded such appellations with a bit of disdain. We're all Americans — period — when we become citizens, either through birth or naturalization.

As I watched the Beijing Olympics on TV this summer (I didn't qualify to compete in any of the events), I got choked up whenever "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played. My speech is distinctly Midwestern. When I think of palm trees, images of my backyard in Florida — not Manila — come to mind. I proudly fly an American flag outside my house. When I managed a real estate office years ago, I started a practice of beginning every weekly sales meeting by asking everyone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance; I even lost an agent over it. I still choose as my profession to work with people who help others achieve the American dream. I vote and go out of my way to personally thank our troops whenever I see them. I exercise my constitutional rights to religion and free speech. And I pay more than my share of taxes.

I didn't share any of this with that woman. Nor did I tell her, of course, that I always got A's in math, drive a Honda and received a rice cooker from my aunt when I graduated from high school.

A few minutes later, when my bridge partner and I got up to move to the next table, he looked at me and grinned. "Some people just don't know when to shut up," he said, referring to the woman.

I just smiled. She didn't mean any harm, I assured him. She was really just trying to be nice while carrying on a conversation. "As she kept talking," I said, "I just kept thinking that sensitivity goes in many different directions. She grew up in a different time, and I have to be sensitive to the way she thinks."

My bridge partner — truly one of the nicest guys in the world — understood.

"Let's play bridge," he said.

Perhaps that's the way to proceed. Let's play.

Dean Congbalay (J86) is an aspiring life master with the American Contract Bridge League. He is the vice president of development at Comey & Shepherd Realtors in Cincinnati and splits his time between Terrace Park, Ohio, and Longboat Key, Fla.

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