Tiffany’s bright, pretty face was animated. Her curly blonde hair wiggled as she told the story. The other girls leaned in, their curiosity aroused, eager to hear every dirty detail.

“…so he really wanted me to give him a blowjob. I was like, all right, but you have to tell me before you cum, okay? I do not want fluid in my mouth. Well, guess what happened?”

“I’m pretty sure I know how this ends,” Cindy sniffed.

“He shoots his load down my throat!” said Tiffany indignantly. “I was like, what the hell! What an asshole.”

“Tiffany, I… I do not understand what you are saying?” said Manjula in a timid voice.

Tiffany gave her an exasperated look. She started to repeat, really slowly: “I—was—giving—a—blow—job—”

“No, I heard you correctly. But what is a blow job?”

The three white girls glanced at each other. “A blow job is when a woman sucks on a man’s cock,” Tiffany finally replied.

This did not clarify things for Manjula. “You were already eating dinner together? But you said for him to call you when he came?”

“What?” Now it was Tiffany’s turn to look confused.

“Manjula,” said Cindy condescendingly, “what do you think she’s talking about?”

“She was sucking the meat off the chicken bone, but then something about fluid? Was it not cooked properly?”

The other three burst into paroxysms of laughter. Manjula sat there, looking dazed, trying to make sense of the joke.

“Just what do you think a ‘cock’ is, Manjula?” gasped Cindy.

“A cock. You know, a male chicken. We need the females for eggs, so we usually eat the males—”

Tiffany and Cindy found this so hilarious they fell into each other’s arms, practically hugging, as their bodies convulsed with mirth. Rachel made at least some effort to hide her amusement, but could not mask the wide grin on her face.

“Okay, let me explain a few English words to you,” Rachel finally intervened. “The word ‘cock’ did once indeed mean ‘rooster’, but nobody uses that meaning anymore. Nowadays, it’s a slang word for… for…”

Manjula waited, but Rachel actually looked too embarrassed to continue.

“It means penis,” interjected Cindy. “Cock is a slang term for penis.”

Manjula’s eyes gaped in surprise. “You were sucking your boyfriend’s penis?” She forgot to keep her voice down, causing male heads to turn throughout the cafeteria.

Tiffany cringed. “I can’t say I really like doing it, but guys insist. Anyway, the beef I have with him is that he came in my mouth. Oh, sorry, I guess you would say he ejaculated in my mouth.” She spoke the word as if it were from a foreign language.

The more they explained, the more confused Manjula got.

“You were having sex? I thought the penis is supposed to go in the vagina?”

Cindy was shaking her head in disbelief. Tiffany put her hand on her forehead. Rachel finally said, “well yes, that’s usually how we have sex, but here in Canada, men often ask their partners to take their penis in their mouth. And it goes the other way too. Women want their partners to touch their pussy—I mean, their vagina—and clit—clitoris with their tongues.”

“Maybe you don’t have sex education in India,” Cindy pontificated, “but in this country—”

“I am not from India, I am from Sri Lanka,” said Manjula sharply.

“Do you even have a clitoris?” Tiffany asked, her expression sympathetic. “I’ve heard that in a lot of those countries, they remove them.”

Female genital mutilation was an African, not Asian, custom (and even in Africa it is on the way out) but Manjula wondered if the other girls knew or cared about the difference. She took a deep breath.

“We do not remove them in our country,” she replied, as diplomatically as she could.

“Whatever. We have to go to class,” said Tiffany, rising up. “I hope you’re not a biology major,” she joked, “else you sure have a lot of extra studying to do.” Cindy snickered. Even Rachel cracked a smile. They headed out. Manjula sat there alone, stone-faced.

She was a biology major, of course. The plan was to eventually go to medical school and become a doctor. And here these girls clearly thought she was an idiot.

Manjula was not used to being talked down to, treated like an illiterate village bumpkin, constantly condescended to. She did not understand Canada, its ways, its customs, its values.

Back in Sri Lanka she had been the smartest student in her school, the one everyone looked up to with grudging respect. She had read the most books, had the highest grades, won the most prizes. And now here she was, ignorant of everything. Back home, she’d prided herself on her English. She could understand English radio better than anyone, she had confidently given directions to foreign tourists, she had achieved a nearly perfect score on the language tests. And now, because she didn’t know their word for penis, of all things, she felt a fool.


The next day Tiffany was again holding court in the cafeteria, this time with a guy who had started chatting her up in the lunch line. His name was Tony Thava-something or other; she’d lost interest by the third syllable.

“You would not believe some of these foreign students!” she complained. “Oh my god! I can’t believe they even let them in!”

“Surely they can’t be failing already?” asked Tony. “It’s only the second week of term.”

“No, it’s just the stupid things they say. They can speak English, if you get past the accent, but they’re like, totally clueless.”

Tony felt a bit nervous about this. Would she think him clueless too? He was acutely conscious that his own skin was brown, although he wasn’t a foreign student.

“What do they say that’s so bad?”

“Oh. Yes. It was this girl, her name was Moon Jewel or something—”

“Do you mean Manjula? She’s in my math class.”

“That’s what I said. Man Julu. Anyways, well…” Tiffany paused. “This was — how do I say it? — a girls’ conversation. If I tell you, don’t get any ideas, okay? This is just — just for illustrative purposes.”

“I won’t,” Tony promised, wondering what she was talking about.

“We were just explaining to her what a blowjob was…”

Tony was confused. He had only just met Tiffany for the first time. He had, admittedly, approached her mainly for looks — she boasted a voluptuous figure, a curvy hourglass waist, a generous chest, slender legs, long curly blonde hair. But he had tried to be a gentleman, keeping his eyes firmly fixated on her eyes, clear and green.

Now she was frankly talking about blowjobs? The thought of those rosy red lips curved around his own dick flitted through his mind. He felt a spark of feeling in his cock.

“…and we said it meant sucking cock,” Tiffany was saying. “And she says—she says—”

She was now laughing so hard she could barely speak.

“She says, was the meat not cooked properly?”

Tiffany went on guffawing, and it was a while before she noticed that Tony did not find this amusing at all.

“What? Don’t you get it?” she queried.

“You know the real meaning of the word ‘cock’ is ‘rooster’, right?”

“Yes, she said that afterwards. It was like talking to someone from the nineteenth century.”

“No, it was like talking to someone whose native language is not English. She didn’t know slang. She thought you were sucking a piece of chicken, and the fluid in your mouth was blood from a chicken that wasn’t fully cooked.”

“Like, what an idiot! You don’t suck on chicken, you bite it off and chew it!”

“But you literally told her you were sucking your boyfriend’s rooster, and fluid came out, what else was she supposed to think?”

“But she had no idea what oral sex was, and she’s in university!”

“It might not be discussed as much where she’s from—”

“If immigrants can’t integrate into this country, then send them back, I say!” Tiffany snapped, a nasty expression on her face.

It was then that it dawned on Tony that Manjula herself was standing a short distance away, the remains of a meal in her tray. Her eyes were wide, her lip quivering, her face set in utter mortification.

She noticed him looking at her, dropped her eyes, and started to hurry off. Tony got up, ignoring the sputtering Tiffany, and hurried after her.

“Manjula… wait.”

She turned around and faced him, her expression fearful.

“Look, I just—I just want to apologize.”

“No need to apologize,” she replied, “it was your girlfriend saying those things.”

“She’s not my girlfriend. I was just having lunch with her.”

“Okay.” She started to turn away, then he had an idea.

“Tamil theriyama?” he asked, hoping he’d pronounced it correctly. Do you understand Tamil?

She pivoted to face him, her eyes suddenly alight. “Enna? Ninga ilankaivurunthu vanthinga? Enga—”

“Sorry, I don’t actually speak Tamil. I just know a few phrases.”

She looked puzzled. “I was asking if you came from Sri Lanka, and where.”

“My parents came from Sri Lanka, but I was born here.”

“You are Sinhalese?” Sinhalese was the majority language in Sri Lanka, but most emigrants were from the Tamil minority.

Tony sighed. He’d lost count of how many times he’d had this conversation. “My parents are Tamil, but they didn’t want me to speak Tamil. They thought I’d integrate better in Canada if I could only speak English.”

Manjula looked perplexed. “You are Tamil, and you cannot speak Tamil?”

Tony nodded. “I get ribbed for it all the time. Tamils don’t realize just how hard their language is to learn. I tried studying it on my own a few times, but there’s hardly any books or reference materials on it, and they just cover the basics.”

“What Tamil do you know?”

“I tried learning the alphabet, but I only know a few words.”

“Such as?”

“Well I remember my mother saying words like polathe pullah, viser cutee, mokku padian, pisasu, channion…”

Those words meant “naughty child”, “crazy kid”, “stupid boy”, “devil”, and “demon”. Manjula was now the one laughing, hard. Her embarrassment was gone.

“English is the opposite,” she said. “There are plenty of materials about the regular language, but you have to pick up slang the hard way.”

“Maybe we should trade,” Tony joked, but Manjula took it seriously.

“You want to teach me slang, and in exchange I teach you Tamil?”

He was about to say he had no time for that — they were both university students, after all — but then he realized just how pretty she was.

Her black hair was parted down the middle and tied into braids along the sides, giving her a schoolgirlish look. Her sharp brown eyes were teasing, full of mirth. That face — it was hard to explain. She had the weather-beaten look so common in recent immigrants from rural India or Sri Lanka, a very human, natural look, free of the makeup Western girls usually wore. Yet her cheeks were round and soft, her lips thin and pleasant. It was a face he could spend a long time looking at.

Manjula was dressed conservatively for the relatively warm September weather — a white blouse that went past the elbows, and a black skirt going past the knees. But nothing could hide how delectable her figure was. She was impossibly slim, with barely an ounce of fat on her. Her breasts weren’t large, but she more than made up for it with the sensuous curve of her tiny waist. Tony felt self-conscious, thinking just how well-fed he must look in her eyes.

He decided. “How about right after math class on Monday? We can go to the library,” he said hopefully. “I have an old basics book I can dig up.”

“That sounds great,” replied Manjula. “I will see you then.”


Tony hadn’t been quite telling the truth; although he did have an old basics book, it was a two-hour bus ride away, at his parents’ house. They were, of course, thrilled when he suddenly came home for the weekend.

“So how is school, son?” his father asked.

“Have you met a girl yet?” his mother cut in, eagerly.


“Don’t rush the boy,” admonished his father. “He must concentrate on his studies first. Now tell me about your professors…”

There followed a more technical discussion about courses and grades, but Tony’s mind kept wandering to Manjula. In one sense she was the first real Sri Lankan he’d ever met. Nearly every Sri Lankan he’d ever known had lived in the West for years, if not decades. He had never been there himself — his parents, unlike some others, had no interest in visiting. Both regularly denigrated it as a “primitive” place and considered themselves well rid of it.

He’d often argued with them on why they hadn’t taught him Tamil. “Why do you want to learn that language?” his father would ask. “The whole world is learning English and you want to learn Tamil?”

“Your grandfather always said that the mark of an educated man is speaking good English,” his mother would chime in. Of course, at the next party all the relatives would be happily gabbing away in Tamil — or sometimes even worse, crowding over a Tamil video — and he’d be the one person left out. Sooner or later somebody or other would always utter the tired words, “Why is it that you cannot speak your mother tongue?” Heads would nod in unified disapproval. His parents never said a thing in his defence.

Manjula was literally the first person who had even offered to teach him Tamil, as opposed to scolding him about it. And — a big smile broke out on his face every time he thought of her. She was just so pretty!

In addition to getting the Tamil textbook, Tony went to the bookstore. She must really want to learn slang badly if she’s willing to spend so much time on me, he thought. He picked up a book on English slang for foreigners, and spent some time on the internet, looking for good sites about music and movies.

The weekend flew by. Tony decided not to tell his parents about Manjula. He wasn’t even sure this counted as a date — ‘study partner’ was a better term.

Was Manjula even interested in dating? He had no idea. Customarily in Sri Lanka, most marriages were arranged — his own parents’ had been. Your parents would look around for a partner, and your first date would include all four parents. There might be two or three such ‘dates’ before the decision was made — marry or not. The idea of a relationship that did not lead to marriage was a very foreign idea.

The customs had modernized over the years, but only partly. In olden times, parents — just fathers, really — had often simply made the decision unilaterally, regardless of what children thought. Nowadays it really was a joint decision between father, mother, and child. The trouble was that parents could still effectively veto their children’s choices. Tony had an uncle whose parents had said no to so many girls he’d ended up never marrying at all.

Typically, young Sri Lankans in the West vowed never to go arranged, but if they hadn’t found a spouse by Western means (what they called a “love match”) by age thirty or so, more than a few came crawling back to their parents, asking them to arrange something. His parents had never pressured him to have an arranged marriage, but if he asked, he knew they would take care of it.

Tony was nervous about that concept. His parents seemed to have turned out all right, but what if that was just the luck of the draw? What if he got stuck with someone who was shallow or greedy or annoying?

Or who didn’t like sex? Tony often wondered how he would explain his late-night surfing habits to a real girl.


On Monday Manjula was quizzing him on the word for ‘mother’.

“Ama,” said Tony.

“Not Ama. Am-ma. Double consonant. This difference matters in Tamil.”

“Am-ma,” repeated Tony.

“Likewise, for father we say Ap-pa. Double consonant. Not Apa,” she said, enunciating the latter quite differently.

Suddenly it made sense. It was like a light bulb turning on.

Some years before, Tony had taught himself the Tamil alphabet, He had tried writing out words he heard, but kept getting them wrong, never understanding when to use a single and when to use a double consonant. Manjula had made it clear in just a few minutes.

Was she a naturally good teacher, or was he trying extra hard to impress her? Who cared? “‘Leaf’ is ilai,” she said, “but ‘no’ is illai. Can you hear the difference?”

“Yes! Yes I can!”

“Very good.” She smiled. “You said you know the Tamil alphabet? Try to read this out loud.” She tapped some keys and pointed her laptop at him. It was a Tamil website showing some song lyrics.

Tony squinted and slowly read:

“Paattu paadava. Parthu pesuva— hey, I know this song!”

Manjula looked impressed. “You do?”

Tony started to sing it. It was one of his favourites, even though he didn’t know the meaning of the words. Roughly translated, they went like this:

“Come to sing a song,

Come to see and speak,

Come to tell a lesson,

Come to fly like a silver moon—”

In Tamil, every line rhymed.

Manjula joined in the last line. “And when the girl comes, I will find a way to ride with her.” They stretched out the last syllable in unison, eyes starting to glow at each other.

“It is really remarkable that you know that,” said Manjula, “that song is nearly sixty years old now.” Her eyes were shining.

“That’s nothing,” Tony replied. “A classic is a classic.”

Manjula looked astonished. “My friends back home always said I was crazy to listen to such an old song.”

“Why, what’s wrong with it? My mother plays it all the time.”

“They think songs expire or something. Nobody our age in Sri Lanka will be caught dead listening to any music more than ten years old.”

“Young people here think that too. English or Tamil, even a one-year-old song is too old for them. They live in the present; they have no sense of the past.”

Manjula’s face had a curious expression on it.

“Do you like any modern songs?”

“Well…” Tony’s voice trailed off; he looked embarrassed.

“Tell me!”

“There’s Kalasala Kalasala…”

Manjula typed the name into YouTube, then groaned. It was an item number.

Tamil music, indeed all Indian pop music, works much like Broadway show tunes. Songs only appear in movies, and every movie is a musical. An item number is a song featuring a hot actress, the item girl, who does not appear in the rest of the film, though she often features heavily in the film’s marketing. Kalasala Kalasala was one such.

Manjula looked curiously at the item girl gyrating on the screen. Movies featured much more skin than real girls would show, at least in her village. The only clothing the item girl had above the waist was a halter top. Her skirt was knee-length, but several times it rose up well up her thighs. Manjula turned back to Tony. “This is the kind of thing you like?”

“Well, okay yes, that girl is very pretty. But the music is good too.”

“I have heard that song before, but this is the first time I have seen the video.”

“Really? You’re not into videos?” This was surprising to Tony. Tamils he knew were glued to music videos.

“I did not have a television or computer back in Sri Lanka. I had a mobile phone, but the only plan we could afford did not have enough data for videos.”

“You didn’t have a computer? How did you study? Do research?”

“On the phone,” she said, matter-of-factly.

She looked at him carefully. He tried to match her gaze, but his eyes kept creeping towards the laptop screen.

Manjula could not blame him. She had occasionally worn Western-style clothes back in Sri Lanka, but never a skirt above the knee, never a sleeve above the elbow. She had seen clothes like that on Western tourists, but it was an entirely different experience to be surrounded by them. Arriving in August, she had found it impossible to stop staring at the endless bare arms and shoulders, sultry midriffs, and inviting legs everywhere she looked. And if she could not stop staring, what must it be like for the boys? What would it be like to grow up as a boy in this country, with oodles of female skin all around you?