Years ago, on a business trip to New Delhi, I stumbled off the plane after a 16-hour flight in a dazed, dehydrated mess. It was midnight, the air smelled stuffy and tired passengers swarmed all around me.
I just needed to find a bed and sleep for a million years.
I walked past customs, the fluorescent lights flickering above me, and I scanned the crowd for my driver. It felt funny having one especially since I had spent part of my 20s backpacking through S.E. Asia on my own, living out of a bag. But my Delhi office insisted on a driver for my own safety especially at that late hour.
Then I spotted a guy carrying a sign: “Welcome Mr. Webbie Dong”.
I squinted and shook my head. What part of that sign is correct?? I dismissed the idea that it could be me, chalking it up to the possibility that there could indeed be a Webbie Dong. After all, I was extremely jetlagged and who was I to second guess someone’s name so closely akin to mine? I kept walking.
Wait a second…what if…?
I turned back and approached him.
Me: Sir, I’m Debbie Wong. I think you’re my driver.
Him: (looking me up and down) I’m looking for Mr. Webbie Dong.
Me: I think there’s been a spelling error. Really, it’s me.
Him: Oh. What’s your good name? (I love how they ask that question India! Sounds cool.)
Him: (looking at his placard sign) But I’m looking for Dong.
Me: That’s wrong. I mean, I’m Wong. And I’m not a Mister.
Him: (laughing) oh yes, I see! You are not a Mister. My apologies.
Me: (showing him my business card) No problem.
Him: Okay, follow me Webbie. The car is just around the corner.
Me: Um, my name is Debbie, not Webbie.
Him: (laughs again) Oh yes, okay so sorry. Ms. Dong, please follow me.
Clearly he was confused. The rest of the week proved interesting. He was assigned to not only be my driver, but also my “buddy” or helper throughout the week as I set up for training classes and meetings. Still, he insisted on calling me Webbie. I guess the name stuck. Each morning, he shouted across the room, “Webbie, what kind of tea would you like? Assam tea?” I spent the first part of the week correcting him and he often chuckled and corrected himself. But the next day, he reverted back to the beloved nickname Webbie.
He turned out to be really sweet, despite his naming disorder, and he checked on me constantly in between meetings to make sure I had enough tea or water. Every day for lunch, he ordered me a chicken burger since “that’s what foreigners must like,” he confided with a wink. It was as plain and hard as cardboard. As a “guest”, he wanted me to feel special. So I always sat in a different room for visitors to eat my lunch. He decorated the table with nice flatware, folded napkins and a white plate where the horrid chicken burger sat.
On the third day, I peeked into the staff kitchen and discovered the whole team sitting around a big clay pot of chicken biryani. The wondrous smell of spices enticed me to stay. I asked for some. My buddy grew serious and said in a protective way, “Oh you are a guest. This is too spicy for you. You don’t like the chicken burger?” I shook my head. He scooped up some chicken biryani into a bowl and I scoffed down a few mouthfuls. The heat rose instantly from my throat to my tongue until my lips burned. My eyes watered as I gulped down water. Still, I persisted and finished my bowl. My buddy laughed and bellowed, “Oh Webbie, you can eat spicy food!” It was delicious and I helped myself to more.
I grew to really appreciate his little quirks and his heartfelt exchanges, and I stopped correcting his pronunciation of my name. After all, he made a mean cup of assam tea. In fact, he turned out to be my buddy every time I visited the Delhi office after that.
Years later, I received an email from an unknown address to announce his departure from the company. When I saw the first line “Hello Webbie…”, I knew it was him.