Webbie Dong was Born

Me at the Taj Mahal

Me at the Taj Mahal

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.)
Me:  Wong.
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.


Remembering New Delhi with Hope, Curiosity and Loneliness

Ajanta Caves, India

Ajanta Caves, India

Remembering smells and sounds bring back memories from childhood, from past travels, often remembrances I hadn’t thought about in years.  Sometimes a flood of emotions rushes back, sometimes just one word.I arrived in New Delhi a couple of days ago.  And when I walked out of the airport and smelled the air – a unique blend of pollution and dust with a tinge of burnt nuts – a strange word came to mind:  HOPE.

Around six years ago, I started a new job and I flew to New Delhi for a senior management meeting.  My first business trip with the company!   And I wanted to make a good impression.  I stepped out of the terminal and I was immediately greeted by the bustling city:  I smelled the strange new air, heard the cacophony of blaring horns from nearby trucks and saw the blur of yellow hooded green tuk-tuks speeding by.As my taxi cruised down the road to my first meeting, I observed the ever-changing sights of the city.  I thought that no matter what, in this new job, I was meant to grow, and to not be afraid of change.  I felt HOPE.That was six years ago.  Many business trips later, I’m still here with the same company.  Funny how I remembered that fleeting moment from so long ago.

Yesterday, on my way to Connaught Place, a popular shopping area in New Delhi, I passed by a bus stop.  I watched passengers shuffle onto the bus.  Then I heard the familiar clang-clang of coins dropping into the fare box.  How rare these days to hear coins since most commuters now use paper tickets.  Then I stopped for a second and suddenly, a surprising feeling emerged:  CURIOSITY

Instantly, I was brought back to the first time I took the bus by myself.

I was 13 years old armed with a bulging change purse with Hello Kitty emblazoned on the front.  My mother had given it to me with the warning to not talk to strangers and to keep the extra $20 in change handy, just in case.  I remembered hearing the familiar sound of coins clanging into the box, followed with the shwoo-lump of the lever to release the change, then the whooo-wup of the doors closing behind me.  That bus ride down Boundary Road and onwards to downtown Vancouver where I would meet my friends was so exciting for me then.  I felt free, independent and CURIOUS about the world as I saw the familiar stores pass by me.

Finally, last night, I headed back to my hotel room, put on some music and flipped through a New Delhi newspaper.  The English Patient soundtrack came on.  I paused – and I felt LONELINESS.  I was instantly taken back to the summer of 2000.  I had just moved to New York and didn’t know a soul.  I was living in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, a stone’s throw away from a huge Blockbuster’s where I rented a lot of videos.  A lot.  My favorite movie that summer was The English Patient, a beautiful and moving love story.  I bought the soundtrack and frequently listened to it.  To this day, the English Patient theme song always echoes and stays a bit longer in my head.  It reminds me of the loneliness I felt in those early days in New York and the kinds of dark questions I often asked myself:  What am I doing here?  Am I meant to live here?

Well, New Delhi is waking up and I am scooting out to enjoy the day, to experience new things and to create more memories.  Perhaps years later, I will remember this trip and think “Remember that time in New Delhi…?”