From Belum to Sudah, and Back Again

I have, by this point, officially reached the halfway point of my Fulbright grant, which means I am halfway through my time here in Indonesia. However, though I did not technically reach this milestone until I attended to Mid-Year Conference in Jakarta, where I was able to see all the lovely faces of my fellow ETAs, in many ways I feel as though I have already reached my own personal halfway point, with the changing of semesters.

Perhaps this is partially due to the teacher in me, who finds it easier to interpret a year through semesters and units than through the more typical months and weeks. More so, I believe it is because the actual “Mid-Year” came right in the middle of the many adventures of the new semester, while the change in semesters came after two weeks of no school, and traveling and reflecting with some of my favorite ETAs. This is not to say that I did not learn anything from my week in Jakarta: indeed, I came home brimming with new ideas I could not wait to use in the classroom. But I had already come into the new semester with new ideas for how to navigate different parts of my professional relationships and social life as they exist in this new culture, which are arguably much more challenging than the more familiar classroom struggles.

In part because of my new determination to find my place here, and in part due to just the natural passing of time, I have enjoyed a significant change in my experience from the first semester, to the second semester. I have come to understand this marked change through two of the most commonly used Indonesian words there are: belum and sudah. 

Belum and sudah translate to “not yet” and “already,” respectfully. Indonesians are loathe to say tidak, or “no,” directly (it is a hopeful language, and “no” is too harsh for their mindset), and therefore they often use the word belum in its stead. Sudah is not only used in the manner in which English speakers use “already,” but also sometimes to indicate anything that has happened in the past. I cannot get through even the smallest conversation in Indonesian without either hearing, or saying myself, at least one of these words.

My first semester was defined by belumBelum bicara Bahasa Indonesia. (I do not yet speak Indonesian.) Belum bertemu dia. (I have not yet met him/her.) Belum ingat jadwalku, karena itu berbeda setiap minggu. (I do not remember my schedule yet, because it is different every week.) I could not get through a single conversation in Indonesian without having to say “Belum jelas” (“Not yet clear”). And in response to almost every question teachers tossed my way, from “Have you been to [insert name of place in or near Malang here]?” to “Do you know how to get home by yourself?” the answer was always the same: “Belum, belum.

Belum is the definition of knowing you do not yet belong. Belum can make you frustrated with yourself, your teachers, the handwritten sign on the warung where you want to buy jus strawberry. On your worst days, belum can make you want to pack up your bags and return to the people and places you know and understand. But belum is worth the struggle, because just beyond belum, bathed in tropical sunlight and resting in a valley of rice paddies and sugar cane, is the magical land of sudah.


Since coming back to my school from break, I have started to hear the word sudah with a much higher frequency than I did before. Though I cannot hold any conversation without slipping into a campuran (mix) of English and Indonesian, it seems that any time I talk to anyone this semester, they feel the need to pause the conversation, point and me, and say to whomever is walking by, “Sudah pintar Bahasa Indonesia![1] I personally feel that claiming I am “Already good at Indonesian!” is a bit of a stretch, but I’ve been working on accepting compliments, and so I just smile politely and look pointedly at the ground.

Occasionally, one of the older, sweeter ibu-ibu at my school will smile across the our lunch table piled high with bakso (the Indonesian version of meatballs, usually used in soup, which is especially fampous in Malang), and Nasi Padang (a spicy selection of foods originally from Sumatra), and say to me, “Sudah lancer!” (“Already fluent!”). To this one, I always respond, “Belum, Bu, belum.” I feel closer to sudah lancer every day, but I still have a long way to go.

Eating has also caused an increase in sudah. While, before, I would only sometimes eat with my hands, keeping my trusty sendok (spoon) tucked in my purse just in case a dish proved too challenging for my clumsy fingers. Now I shamelessly dig in, causing my ibu-ibu to exclaim happily, “Sudah bisa makan pakai tangan!” (“You can already eat with your hands!”). My spice tolerance has also increased gradually, so that while I used to ask for food tampa (without) sambal (the Indonesian equivalent of salsa, which usually is a danger level of spicy and which they put on everything), I sometimes find myself asking people to tambah (add) more. “You already have the Indonesian taste,” one of my co-teachers told me just recently. The importance of this change is not to be underestimated. Indonesians love food: the fact that I can now happily enjoy their cuisine might be more important to them than the fact that I am trying to learn their language.


While some of my transformation from belum to sudah has been gradual, such as my language learning and my Indonesian palate, there was one change I made from one semester to the other that created an immediate sudah, and it was not one which I expected.

During the second week of our recent break, I finally learned how to ride a motorbike, and somehow this has
changed, well, everything. My trusty steed is a ten-year-old automatic which I am renting from a lovely ibu with two adorable children, to whom I am referred to as “Auntie Grace.” It’s scratched and bent from previous bule renters, it is not the most impressive ride, but it has already done so much for me. Not only has riding a motorbike given me renewed freedom of mobility, something I was feeling a significant lack of in my first semester, but it has changed almost every interaction I have here.

Male teachers who wanted nothing to do with me before now ask me about where I have been on bike, and how fast I drive. Students whom I was having difficulty getting to know now wave ecstatically every time I drive by. Asking for directions when out walking, I am more likely to be told that I should not be walking alone than actually given guidance as to what turn I should make. On a motorbike, becak drivers and warung owners alike are morelikely to provide the help I am asking for.

It’s a baffling change. “Sudah berani” (“already brave”), smiles one of my favourite ibu-ibu, and I can barely keep the confusion off my face. I confess, after the persuading I had to do to convince my teachers to let me rent a motorbike, and after hearing so many of the female teachers talk about how their fathers and husbands will not let them learn to ride a motorbike, I expected hearty disapproval of my mode of transportation. But Indonesia is always full of surprises, and the very thing which I worried would cause others to think ill of me has, rather, provided me with more respect than I have enjoyed since coming here.


In many ways, I am still navigating the realm of belum, and to some extent I probably will be right up until the day I leave. But there is beauty in the struggle, and with one foot firmly in belum, and the other testing the waters of sudah, I am excited to drive off into the second half of my Indonesian adventure.

[1] As a side note, pintar literally translates to “smart,” but it is often used to mean “good at.” You
can be sudah pintar bahasa Indoensia, but also sudah pintar badminton. As someone who used to read Howard Gardner for fun, I have a small internal party every time I hear it used this way.


One thought on “From Belum to Sudah, and Back Again

  1. Pingback: A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia | All for the Love of Wandering

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