As a kid, I loved cheese. As an adult, I still love cheese. Obsessed. Nowadays, it’s a socially acceptable addiction as long as you can say a thing or two about cheeses with silent Ts. Roquefort, camembert, brie…the frenchier the better.
Brie doesn’t have a silent T but just making sure you’re paying attention.
And, growing up, once the hangouts became parties and parties became “dinner parties,” I realized it was even more mature if I drank wine while stuffing my face with cheese—not a bad deal.
But, this isn’t a story about coming of age, adulthood, or even really cheese for that matter. Though it was my love of cheese that brings us to Chi Chi’s, my favorite authentic Mexican restaurant as a child. I knew everything about the menu.
“Founded by two bandidos named Marno McDermott and Max McGee, our collective initials spell “mmmm.”
Four Ms. I couldn’t believe it. Only fate could have brought together this alliterative alliance. It was a coincidence I didn’t take lightly, especially at 8 years old. I envisioned how Mr. McDermott and Mr. McGee must have crossed the Rio Grande into America, the land of opportunity, selling their grande burrito burgers one by one on the street just to keep the lights flickering and their dream alive.
In 2004, the two entrepreneurial and alleged Mexicans were pushed out of America by even more authentic restaurants, age-old rival Taco Bell and Chipotle—Chi Chi’s most Shee Shee nemesis. “Mexican Standoff Comes to an End. McDermott and McGee lose to McDonald’s subsidiary,” the headlines would have read.
I blamed myself. When I lived at home, Chi Chi’s was a welcome change to the daily DBS—or daal baath shak. Once I moved away to college, I rarely would go to Chi Chis. It was strictly a family affair.
But the times we did share there is what I’d like to talk about today.
Whenever my parents and I would go to the restaurant, dad would put his reservation under the name Phillip. His name is Dilip. Kirti, my mom, was Kirti by day, but on such a night out, her om nom nom de plume would be Katie. So, each time we went, I would tag along, attached to the hips of Phillip and Katie while a teenager with a nose ring named either Qimmee or Jacqui—both somehow managing to get a Q into their names—would lead us to our table.
On one such occasion, I confronted my parents about their fake names.
“It’s just to make it easier on the hostess,” mom whispered as Jacqui-with-a-Q laid down free chips, a hot salsa, and a mild salsa.
“But what’s so hard about Kirti or Dilip? They’re not that different from that and they even rhyme with your American names.”
I waited on an answer. Dad looked lost in thought. He looked up from his menu and belted out, “Excuse me, Jacqui, could you take this mild salsa back and bring us another hot one?”
To be fair, I couldn’t fault his priorities. But I persisted. “Well?”
He was annoyed but took on a smile. “Look, sonny, when I was in Bagdad, you were still in dad’s bag, ok?”
It was a phrase he knew would send me into fits of laughter. It meant that dad had been around the block and that I was a precocious child with sophomoric tendencies who shouldn’t question him so much. Looking back, it was somewhat dismissive, but testicles were involved, so it was hilarious and effective.
I ordered a strawberry daiquiri from Jacqui. She asked me if I wanted it as a virgin. My face contorted. Virgin. I completely lost it. I didn’t stop shrieking and laughing until much later when I got very sleepy, halfway through my “ice cream quesadillas…tradicional.”
That night melted away as just another night at Chi Chi’s and life moved quickly on. I joined a few different sports teams and took on a few different names. Aditya became A.C. for baseball, then Ya for basketball, A-Titties for the bullies to easily distinguish me from the other nerds, and finally settling in on Adi, a name I still use at work and at life.
With one obvious exception back there, I figured that these names would be much easier to shout out as I took a game winning shot or to cheer me on as I closed out a baseball game with a game-saving pitch. And though I primarily played benchwarmer who’d come in when someone fouled out or played with the grass in right field, along the way, I made a bunch of friends who loved Chi Chi’s as much as I did.
It was sometime in college that I found out that my last name, Surendran, wasn’t even my last name. This made sense as no one else on my dad’s side was named Surendran, but I had just never really questioned it before. Turns out that Kumbalathparambil, my real last name and a name longer than Aditya Surendran combined, was the last name I was born with. The name didn’t fit on our passports when we were moving to America and so we changed it to Surendran. It was that simple. “It’s just to make it easier on the hostess,” I told myself.
And so that pretty much brings us to today. There’s some kind of election going on, I believe? And the names involved mean everything. One candidate’s entire existence is wrapped up in his family’s fake name—he likely tucks himself in with a blanket that has a big T embroidered into it. And the other, while possibly making history in becoming the first female president, would not be the first Clinton president. I’m not saying she hasn’t earned her place, but that Drumpf v. Rodham is an election that may never have taken place.
Somewhere along our collective way, our words stopped being descriptions and became aspirations. Our network is the most reliable. Ours has the fastest speeds. Our network is hot pink! Only one of those claims is verifiable. “Now with Real Sugar.” What was in there before? What were my parents aspiring to with Phillip and Katie? Dilip and Kirti were not just “enough” but infinitely greater. Because Dilip and Kirti were the truth. Aditya is the truth. Kumbalathparambil is the truth.
My head hurts. I can see why this topic is better left untouched. Better to just make sure you get two hot salsas. As a kid, I loved cheese. As an adult, I still love cheese and not just the shee shee french cheeses or the chee chee Chi Chi cheesess. And I don’t care what you think.