Chicken Ramen for the Queer Soul
By Kevin Mutta, UG'24
Whenever I went to the mall in Chennai, I’d visit the convenience store on the ground floor— “Tryst Gourmet,” which had everything a regular Indian convenience store did not. I had one goal: to find a packet of chicken ramen. I would make a beeline for the instant foods section and find the object of my desire, emblazoned with the words “Samyang Buldak Hot Chicken Ramen”. If my parents were home, I’d leave the bag outside until the coast was clear, and then I’d scramble to hide it behind the books on my bookshelf, where I knew my mother wouldn’t find it.
It was crucial that my mother not find it, since she’d had an uncanny ability to find everything that I’d hidden so far, and this space behind the books was something I had come upon through trial and error. The first things I hid were these black lace chokers that my best friend had gotten me for my birthday, my very first pieces of non-masculine clothing—she found them in a few days. They mysteriously went missing soon after. Next were my earrings and necklaces, and my tight tops and skirts. No matter what I hid, no matter where I hid it, she’d always find it, and I would have to lie or own up, in which case we would end up fighting. What terrified me more was the thought of how she’d react if she knew what I was hiding this time.
I’d wait until after midnight when my entire family had gone to sleep and check for the light beneath my parents’ bedroom door; once there was complete darkness, the plan was on. I’d place everything into a pot and cook it as instructed, but always do the dishes first, so there’d be no trace of my crimes. I bought different ramen from time to time, and sometimes it was so spicy that I couldn’t feel my tongue for at least half an hour after. Sometimes, it was just not to my taste, and on some nights, I was too full to go on. I would still finish it. With every bite, I was reclaiming myself.
I grew up atheist in a Jain household, where non-vegetarian food was not allowed. Despite a childhood spent dissociating myself from Jainism, I’d been indoctrinated into strict vegetarianism: seventh-grade arguments with seniors who “murdered sentient beings to satisfy their tastebuds” were preceded by me beginning to question my sexuality. I came out to my mother in a fight another two years later. She was confused: she’d already told me that she was fine with other parents’ kids being gay as long as it wasn’t her child, so it seemed like I was just trying to spite her. I came out to my parents as an atheist two years after this. They asked me where they went wrong with me. I had no answer. Just like non-vegetarian food, there’s no place for who I am in my house.
But what was it about vegetarianism, claiming to cause less suffering, that struck me as more harmful than sinless? My family’s vegetarianism was exclusionary: they had few non-vegetarian friends, and as a community, were actively hostile towards Christians and Muslims. We performed Hindu pujas on Diwali and paid obeisance to Hindu deities on occasion because, according to my mother, “Hindus are closest to Jains.” What I came to discover was that any vegetarianism will often, if not always, involve some form of exclusion. I’m afraid of being excluded. I always have been. At the age of 12, I started saving up money and hiding it in my books because I was afraid that if my parents found out I was queer, I might need to run away. I continued saving, but over the years, the initial purpose was lost.
One day, my mother accused me of doing something I hadn’t done, and she refused to believe me. So I came clean about everything. I told her that the skirts were mine, that I’d been hiding money, that I post pictures of myself in feminine clothing online. It may sound absurd, but this was my way of telling her that I was hiding nothing more, so she could have reason to believe everything else I had to say. Except these weren’t the only things I was hiding. A few days later, she woke up, walking into the kitchen where I’d laid out my packet of ramen, ready to cook. Panicking, I grabbed the packet, ran to my bedroom, and hid it in the bookshelf. She asked me what it was. I refused to answer. I said, “Just this once, I will not tell you what it was. Please stop asking.” I was tired of giving in, grappling to retain myself when my family would rather I be none of it, have none of me. I refused to give up more.
Privacy is an Anglo-European hetero-patriarchal idea, and the closet is unavailable outside of it. And yet, I was forced back into it when I came out to my mother. “You don’t need privacy until you’re older and living with your wife” — my mother’s words have stayed with me over the years; and with her too, because I’ve never been able to hide something in my room. When I was younger, my parents would go through my closet and phone frequently, sure to find something incriminating—a locked door would be met with banging because I was not allowed to be doing anything that they did not know of. Like privacy, the “closet” as a hiding place does not make sense to me. Nothing in my closet was ever really hidden, perhaps more so because I did not choose to hide myself in it.
When I came out, after telling me I was wrong, she told me not to tell anyone. I was already out to almost the entire school. She went on to joke about my future as a husband, and everytime I asked her to stop, expressing my discomfort, she feigned oblivion. Coming out to my parents became an exercise I routinely undertook, because they never accepted it. In a home where hiding is not allowed and transparency is not acceptable, there is only so much of me that could continue to exist. Outside, I ate ramen at restaurants, and nobody would say anything. I’ve worn crop tops to parties and crystal earrings to clubs, and besides glares or the occasional harassing comment, I’ve felt comfortable expressing myself. It shouldn’t be such a contradiction, to yearn for safety in a place called home. That’s why the ramen meant so much to me; why I would buy multiple packs and make the effort to ensure that nobody ever found out, that I never left a trace. When I had to leave everything that made me feel like me outside my home, those packets of ramen were like bringing a little bit of me inside.
As I write this, I realise that I’ve stopped it all: hiding skirts, saving money, hoarding ramen. Part of it is because hiding is exhausting; instead of skulking around in the dark pretending to be something I’m not, I’d rather be nothing. But it’s also because I’m going to college soon. Two weeks from now, I’ll be wearing skirts and little pearl necklaces with polish on my nails, I’ll be spending money outside of my parent’s scrutiny, I’ll be eating whatever I want, wherever I want. I will make chicken ramen at night, without having to worry about my parents waking up. I will be living the queer college-student dream. I won’t have to hide anymore.