Favorite Indonesian Words and Phrases

After three years of living in Indonesia, I have been lucky to learn quite a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.  I in no way consider myself fluent, but I function fairly well, and I am incredibly thankful for that.  While learning this dynamic and wonderful language, I have come across a few phrases that I have really come to love.  Some are funny, some are beautiful.  But I love them all, and wanted to share them here.

Tidak apa apa.  This literally translates to “No what what,” and using the English version is guaranteed to make a classroom of English-learners giggle uncontrollably.  It means “no problem,” or “it’s okay,” and Indonesians say it all the time.  Yes, sometimes this relaxed nature can get on my nerves, and I find myself ranting in my head: “That is not something you can just tidak apa apa!”  But at the end of the day I admire it, and feel that people in my own country could learn something from this.  And I love the various ways different regions shorten the phrase: “Tak pa pa,” “Ga pa pa,” and even “gpp” in sms.

Hati-Hati.  This phrase means “Be careful.”  It can be used on its own, like when you might warn a small child not to touch a stove.  But it can also be used as part of the larger phrase “Hati-hati di jalan,” or “Be careful on the road,” which is said almost every time you part ways with someone.  What I love about this phrase is that hati is also the word for the metaphorical heart[1].  That this phrase so directly connects the idea of parting ways with someone to the heart is still so touching to me, even after three years of hearing it almost every day.

Mandi bebek.  Mandi is the Indonesian word for “shower” or “bathe,” and in a country where cleanliness is of the upmost importance and people will probably be shocked if you tell them that you shower only once a day, this is an important word to know.  Mandi bebek means “duck shower” and this is a short shower, in which you just rinse your body and don’t wash your hair or use soap.  Any equivalents I know of in English are either far cruder or far less adorable, and as the queen of mandi bebek (a quick rinse-off at the end of a hot day of teaching is so key to decent mental health), I was ecstatic when I learned this word existed.

Anda.  This is the formal Indonesian word for you.  It is always capitalized, while no other pronoun is.  As a native speaker of English, where the capitalized pronoun is “I,” the word for the self, I am fascinated by this emphasis on the other, and the diminishing of the self.  There is a selflessness in Indonesian culture that is beautiful, and it seems it comes out even in the language.

Malu-malu kucing.  This literally translates to “shy-shy cat,” and it is usually used to good-naturedly tease someone who is shy, or malu-malu.  Teachers use it all the time to coax students who are too embarrassed by their English to speak up in class: “Jangan malu-malu kucing!” (“Don’t be shy-sky cat!”).  And it often works.  The very fact that the phrase is amusing often helps nervous students to relax and smile at least a little, and I wish there was a phrase in English that could do the same.

Belum and Sudah.  Belum means “not yet,” and sudah means, “already.”  While there are words for yes and no in Indonesian, iya and tidak, to respond to many questions it is far more common to use the words belum and sudah, and I have always found this particularly fascinating when it comes to belum.  “Have you eaten?”  “Belum.”  “Have you studied for a graduate degree?”  “Belum.”  Have you been to Lombok?” “Belum.”  There is the assumption that just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you never will.  And so, you don’t answer with a firm no, but merely a “not yet.”  There is an inherent optimism and recognition of opportunity in this phrasing that I find really wonderful, and it has made me re-think how I think about the future.

Mandi hujan.  This means, “rain shower,” and is the word used for playing in the rain, and many Indonesians use it even if the mandi hujan was unintentional.  If I come home soaked to the bone, because I forgot my umbrella, I joke with the security in front of the building that I was mandi hujan.  I learned this phrase from one of my students, who loved mandi hujan so much that he simply could not stay still if the rain started to fall.  Almost every time we had class together, because his English class fell at a time when the rains would come like clockwork, the way they do in Indonesia, he would start to dance in his seat and look longingly out the windows.  I would help him to focus as best as I could, and if he could finish his tasks for that day, and could show me that he understood his homework, he would look up at me and say, “Mandi hujan, miss?” and I would let him leave class a few minutes early, and would see him later on, walking home, soaking wet and deliriously happy.  Rain has always brought me joy, and cloudy days have never been dreary for me.  My student’s shared love of rain has made this one of my favorite Indonesian phrases.

Bapak, Ibu, Kakak, and Adik.  The simplest translations for these words are: Bapak as “father,” Ibu as “mother,” kakak as “older sibling,” and adik as “younger sibling.”  These are used to talk about actual family members—my brother, for example, is my adik laki-laki—but it is also used as a form of address in many parts of Indonesia.  Older women are Ibu, or Bu, and older men are Bapak, or Pak.  Anyone similar in age or only slightly older is kakak, or kak and younger folks are adik, or dik.  You use these words even when you meet someone for the first time, and I am fascinated by this immediate familiarity.  Like Anda, this seems to echo something in the larger culture that I have observed: in such a communal society, neighbors and even strangers are like family.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of the Indonesian words and phrases I have come to love, and I am sure that I will learn more wonderful Indonesian even during the last month I have left.  But I hope that you all enjoyed this list!




[1] Regarding physical body parts, jatung is “heart,” and hati is “liver.”  This means than an alternative translation for hati-hati di jalan is “Liver-liver on the road,” something my students in English Club found hilarious, and so we used that phrase exclusively for the year.


Miss Grace Is…

It’s an embarrassing, but entirely human concern: “What do other people think of me?”

Living in a foreign country, this ever-present anxiety is simultaneously familiar and typical, as well as complicated and accentuated.  I am never entirely sure if it stems more from the worry I have never entirely been able to eradicate, or from the constant awareness that part of my purpose here is as a cultural ambassador: for many Indonesians, I may be the only American they come into personal contact with, and I want to leave a good impression.  Unanswerable questions pinball through my head throughout each day: “Did I communicate what I was trying to say in a culturally responsive and comprehensible manner?”, “Did I understand completely what she just said, and did I respond appropriately?”, and the one that is least significant and yet somehow lurks closest to the heart, “Do they like me?”

It is not uncommon for me to hear my name slipped into conversations held entirely in Indonesian or Javanese, and I confess that at first this caused me great anxiety.  (What are they saying?  What did I do wrong?)  But as my Indonesian has increased, and as I have become more proficient at deciphering the hand motions and facial expressions that accompany the Javanese of the teachers around me, I have begun to piece together the impression of myself I have left for those whom I interact with on a regular basis, namely, the people at my school.  It is sometimes comical the parts of me which have become emphasized so far from home, but it is still somehow accurate.

And so, accompanied by various photographs taken by one of my co-teachers[1], I present to you Miss Grace, as seen by her school.


Miss Grace is a teacher.

There many parts of my identity that I have chosen to conceal while I am in Indonesia, but if there is one part of me that I do not need to hide, it is that I will stop at nothing to ensure that my kids will learn.  I stand on chairs to orchestrate rousing rounds of “Would You Rather?,” I dramatically fall on my bum in front of the class in order to demonstrate the difference between “feel” and “fell,” and I run around like a mad woman—sweat dripping down my back and my hair steadily escaping the braid that vainly tries to contain it—calling out “Yes! Perfect! Fantastic!  Hati-hati, fly is an irregular verb! Wonderful! Yes!” as my students hurry to write their past-perfect conjugations on make-shift white boards.[2]  I might sometimes stumble through some of the cultural differences here, and I’ll admit that I have, on occasion, sat in my room with all the lights off, taking advantage of my Kindle’s backlight in order to hide from the world.  But whenever I am in the classroom, I am on.  


I had not anticipated that my teaching would be the part of me that would be most noticed, but somehow it has been.  “Selalu creativ.  Selalu inovativ” (“Always creative.  Always Innovative”), says the head of the English department after I explain to her one of the activities I plan on using in class that day.  “Grace, you are a real teacher,” says my counterpart as I tweak the same activity during the short walk from one class to the other, because I think I’ve found a better way to link it directly to the objective for that day’s lesson.  It did not take me long to develop a reputation as a teacher first, and a foreigner second, and I truly believe this is how I have developed such good relationships with some of the teachers outside of my discipline here, even if we do not speak the same language and have little else in common beyond our shared love of students.  There is something is something universal in the stubborn belief that all students can and should be encouraged to learn that stretches across cultures, even if they are a world apart.


I do have to be somewhat careful about how dedicated I am to my teaching.  Rajin (hardworking) is a word often used when describing me, and, coming from a working class American background, I assumed at first that this was a good thing.  But here the personal relationships you develop with your coworkers are just as—if not more—important than your effectiveness.  I’ve tried simultaneously working and socializing, but I have found that this usually ends conversations prematurely, because people are afraid they are bothering me.  “Sibuk, sibuk” (“Busy, busy”), they say and walk away, even as I insist that I can cut out flashcards made from recycled cereal boxes and talk at the same time.  Sometimes, I have to accept that I will need to finish my materials for next week’s lessons at night, rather than during a free period (the habit I developed during student teaching), because that free period needs to be used to smile and joke with the math teacher who has the same free period.  It’s a unique balance of work and play, a difficult balance for this ex-farm-girl who is accustomed to juggling three jobs every summer, but I am beginning adjust to it.



Miss Grace likes to bake.

Though I almost feel guilty saying this, as I fear it implies I am not fully embracing the culture in which I find myself, possibly
the best purchase I have made here (excepting my motorbike) is a toaster oven.  Indonesians rarely use ovens in their day-to-day cooking, relying instead on their gas stoves as they fry, well, pretty much everything.  I come from a family of excellent bakers (my father’s chocolate chip cookies are to die for, and I’ll only share my mother’s pie crust recipe with you if I really like you), and so the idea of going nine months without baking once almost broke me in a way that language barriers and cultural differences could not.  Thus, the toaster oven.

But if there is anything that all bakers know, it is that a plate of cookies is a sure-fire way to make friends.  During their unit on simple instructions, I made no-back chocolate oatmeal cookies for all eleven of my eleventh grade classes, giving me the kind of brownie points every teaching assistant desires, and also inspiring students to drag me into a pasta-making event which happened on my first campus one day.  And if more than two weeks go by without my bringing in something sweet, one of the office ladies is sure to sidle up to me and whisper secretively, “Grace, when you are going to make those cookies again?”



Miss Grace is naughty (but not always in a bad way).

I have tried to conform, at least somewhat, to the culture in which I find myself.  However, I am who I am and sometimes that just doesn’t quite fit in.  I first heard the word nakal, the Indonesian word for naughty, when I kicked off my teaching shoes and joined a game of soccer with some of my students.  “Girls don’t play sepak bolah,” the teachers told me. I tried to tell them that girls do indeed play soccer in many, if not most, parts of the world, and often with greater intensity than the boys, but they just shook their heads and said, “You are so naughty, Miss Grace.”  Worried that I had committed a serious no-no, I put my flats and skirt on, and I have not touched a soccer ball since.


More recently, however, I have started to learn that being called “naughty” might not necessarily be a bad thing.  The first time I filled my water bottle from the student water fountain, refusing to accept another plastic bottle, the co-teacher I was with at the time called after me, “You are so naughty, Grace!”  But she has never actually tried to stop me.  Later, when I began riding my motorbike, the word nakal was often used in the same sentence as berani (brave), and while I feared disapproval for driving a motorbike, I have, rather, been encouraged to go farther and faster.


It seems nakal, in this context at least, is less of a condemnation and more of a recognition that something does not quite fit into a certain set of norms.  More and more, it seems as though my ibu-ibu take great amusement in the many ways I twist and break the rules, and I’ve slowly begun to embrace my nakal status.  Next time a soccer ball is being passed around, you can be sure that I will join in.


Miss Grace is learning (if slowly).  

My language learning has progressed much slower than I would have liked, and I am well on my way to becoming a master of the Indonesian U-Turn, since I am infamous for taking the wrong turn no matter how many times I have driven a particular route.  There are days when I want to throw up my hands and accept that I will never have a solid grasp on anything, ever.

Sabar, mbah,” says my beloved co-teacher, encouraging patience as my forehead wrinkles in a combination of concentration and frustration, trying to remember the correct pronunciation of sirsak (soursop, a type of tropical fruit), and butchering it to the extent that even those who are used to deciphering my poor accent cannot understand me.  Later, when I self-correct my misuse of kalah (lost, as in “I lost the badminton match”) when I meant to use tersesat (lost,
as in “I was lost and driving in circles yesterday), she clapped her hands ecstatically and said to my other co-teacher, “See, she is learning.”

I have been making progress in learning the language, the culture, and the street layout (okay, maybe not that last one), during my time here, but sometimes that’s hard to recognize on my own.  As I’ve tried to understand what how others see me, I’ve also learned that, even after twenty-two years of listening to people tell me that we are often our own worst critics, and sometimes too hard on ourselves, I do not always see myself clearly, and I cannot be more thankful for that lesson.


Miss Grace is starting to fit in.  

My light skin, my forever slightly-western attire, and the fact that at 5’4” I am even taller than many of the men on my campus mean that I will never really be able to blend in at SMAN 10.  Nonetheless, I am beginning to find a place into which I can fit my irregularly-shaped piece into this giant puzzle of two campuses, dozens of teachers, hundreds of students, and thousands of stories.

I joke with the guru-guru in the teacher’s room; the gardeners and cleaning crew (a ragtag group of young men and middle-aged women who constantly shirk their work to hang out behind the buildings, and who are some of my favorite people here), have learned not to worry when I trip over my own feet, but to laugh instead; security recognizes my rain jacket and motorbike now, and so I no longer need to raise my visor when I come through the school gates; and if I miss a Study Night or school event, people are immediately concerned, because it has become assumed that I will always be there.  At Parents Day, one of the biggest events of the new semester, I found myself sitting in the middle of all the teachers in attendance. I didn’t have the same batik they were all wearing, but I was able to show up in similar colors; and even if there was a chorus of whispers from parents when I was introduced with the other teachers, the students and teachers did not blink an eye: to them, I was just another member of the larger school community.


My identity shifts almost daily here, in the eyes of those around me as well as my own.  But whether I am know as a teacher, a baker, or a trouble-maker, I am forever Miss Grace, the ETA at SMAN 10 with room to grow.

[1] This co-teacher is constantly snapping pictures of me in class, something I admit I found quite strange at first.  The upside to this is that I actually have pictures of me teaching, and generally going about my day at school.

[2] I will forever worship the ground Professor Linda Hanrahan walk upon for telling my student teaching cohort how to make these.  For those who don’t know, if you take a plastic sheet-protector and put a piece of paper inside it, you have an instant white board for your students to use. It’s a game changer for teachers with too many students and not enough funds.