Breaking Down Language Barriers

This post is about learning Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Jawa and Slang in Surabaya

Tidak Apa Apa – literal meaning: no whatwhat, actual meaning: no problem, no worries, that’s okay, yes that’s fine

It means no worriessss, for the rest of your days! It’s our masala free, phil-o-so-phy. Tidak apa apaaaa. Just kidding. 

 movie animals disney random dark GIF

*masala is problem in Bahasa Indonesia


Bahasa Indonesia

Moving to a new country and living in a community where you don’t know anyone is difficult. I knew this coming in. Learning Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) has been necessary for me to communicate and also understand the culture that I am living in. It has helped me build better relationships with the people around me.

Back in September, I did have language training at orientation in Bandung which was useful. It provided me with basic knowledge about the language. However, what they taught us was very formal and grammatically correct…no one talks like that. I’ve primarily learned Bahasa Indonesia through conversations with teachers, students and neighbors and also by asking Kelly (who is a Bahasa Indonesia pro because she’s been living here for almost 2 years now) a million questions.

I’ve gotten really lucky at site with my community. Folks here are so willing to share their language and culture with me. Even when I speak improper, broken Bahasa Indonesia, people are patient and are willing to make sense of the jumbled sentences that come out of my mouth. (This was weird for an American because I have literally witnessed other Americans in the U.S. shouting “SPEAK ENGLISH! THIS IS AMERICA” at foreigners which is really upsetting.)

Every so often, I’ve made some serious blunders like:

  • Mixing up gemuk with ganteng…”gemuk” means “fat” and “ganteng” means “handsome”…whoops
  • Saying “saya lapar” when I should have been saying “saya kenyang”….”lapar” means “hungry” and “kenyang” means “full”. I mixed them up and couldn’t figure out why everyone kept giving me more food when I thought I was saying “I am full”
  • Mixing up “pedas”, “pedes” and “petis”… “pedas” is spicy in Bahasa Indonesia, “pedes” is spicy in Bahasa Jawa and “petis” is shrimp paste. They are pronounced very similarly and during my first few months here, people thought I was saying “I don’t want spicy” when I meant “I don’t want shrimp paste”

    **Side note, a previous ETA actually mixed up “sakit jiwa” with “gila” and got in all sorts of trouble. “Gila” is like “crazy” or “goofy” but “sakit jiwa” is “mentally insane-crazy”. Indonesians don’t use the word “crazy” like Americans do.

Anyway, I’ve been in Surabaya for over 7 months now and I think I finally have a grip on the language. I can do the basics like:

  • Order my [complicated and obnoxiously particular vegetarian] food
  • Give directions to my house, school or other locations in the city
  • Explain the 5 W’s of who, what, when, where and why
  • Scold my students who don’t do their homework
  • Bargain at the market
  • Yell at market sellers who are trying to rip me off because I’m foreign
  • Crack jokes with my teacher boos, neighbors and toko (streetside shop that sell literally everything) friends
  • Understand slang and Surabaya city trash talk
  • Understand basic conversations that happen around me and at least react with limited answers; I can understand more than I can speak

There are a few more but I’ll leave it there.

Furthermore, learning Bahasa Indonesia and the grammar structures here have helped me teach English as a second language. For example, in Bahasa Indonesia “dia” is “he” or “she” so sometimes on assignments, students easily mix up the two. Another example, in Bahasa Indonesia, the adjective goes after the noun so students will write “child small” for “anak kecil” which actually should be “small child”.

Fun Fact: Bahasa Indonesia been an interesting language to learn because it borrows words from local Austronesian dialects, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindi, Dutch, English and more!

Bahasa Jawa aka Boso Jowo aka Javanese

Learning the language here hasn’t been a total walk in the park because Bahasa Indonesia is not the only language that spoken here. Since I live in East Java, most people are ethnically Javanese and speak Bahasa Jawa (Javanese). Most people here will casually jump in and out of Indonesian and Javanese which totally throws me off. I try to learn some Javanese but it makes my kepala pusing (gives me a headache).

Learning Javanese is REALLY REALLY REALLY difficult for many reasons:

  1. Javanese is NOTHING like Indonesian.
  2. Javanese uses all sorts of guttural sounds that I just can’t make. My face gets a workout trying to pronounce the words
  3. On top of that, there are 3 different levels of Javanense:
    • Kromo Inggil (High level which is very polite and formal) – The language a younger person must use when they address parents, grandparents, teachers, other older people and respected professionals **note, the parents, grandparents,teachers etc. will respond to the younger person in Kromo Madyo
    • Kromo Madyo (Middle level which is polite and formal but every so slightly casual) – The language used by partners in a workplace for formal setting. Teachers in a school will use this with each other. Younger people will also use this to speak to their older siblings.
    • Ngoko (lower level, causal) – The language used between friends and people similar in age. Older siblings will use Ngoko to address their younger siblings.
    • **Another note, there are many other scenarios that I didn’t write about and am still very confused about. The three levels will change based off the situations depending on which region you are in. For example, in East Java, parents will speak to their children in Kromo Madyo but in Central Java, parents will speak to their children in Ngoko. In East Java, Ngoko is considered too harsh to address a children in.
  4. Each region has their own dialect of Javanese, especially Suroboyo (Surabaya) where people take Javanese VERY seriously and are readily available to smack talk with words that are unique only to the city. Example, “Jancuk” is equivalent to the f-bomb but in Surabaya kids use it as a way to greet their friends. It ultimately is like a “YO MOTHA F*****”. However, to older people and people in other parts of Java, this word is incredibly offensive and will get you in a lot of trouble.My kepala is pusing (or sirah mumet in Bahasa Jawa) just from writing those points out. I’ve even met a few Javanese people are thrown off by Bahasa Jawa! Although, it’s confusing and strenuous but I’m slowly learning.Here are the few Javanese words I’ve picked up:
  • Monggo- Please, Go ahead, Welcome,
  • Matur Suwon or Matur Nwoon – Thank you
  • Sepuntane Mawon – I’m sorry
  • Udan – Rain
  • Udani – To take someone’s clothes off (yes, there’s a verb for this and an Ibu insisted that I needed to know this word)

As you can see, my Bahasa Jawa is limited. When learning a new language, of course the first thing that people want to teach you are the bad words and bad things. My Boo Rina wanted to make sure I didn’t confuse, “udan” with “udani”. LOLOL

Sassy Surabaya Slang

Learning the slang in Surabaya has been a comedy show. There are so many funny phrases that I just had to share. I believe these phrases display Indonesian/Javanese culture’s ability to make jokes of serious things and have a good time! Some of these are not-so-low-key backhanded and I can’t stop myself from laughing. 

Here’s a list of some phrases I’ve picked up:

  • Polisi Tidur – literal meaning: sleeping police, actual meaning speed bump (LOLOL NO CHILL)
  • Duda Duda Keren – shortened form: Duren, literal meaning: cool/awesome widower, actual meaning- sexy widower (but I prefer to say sexy man widower)
  • Brondong literal meaning: baby corn, actual meaning: refers to a boy who likes older women, it’s the opposite of a cougar in American English
  • Buaya Darat literal meaning: land alligator, actual meaning: a man who is a playboy and has his eyes on all the ladies
  • Kucing Garong – literal meaning: wildcat, actual meaning: playboy, similar to Buaya Darat
  • Lidah Mertua – literal meaning: a plant species with sharp leaves, actual meaning: refers to a mother-in-laws tongue which I assume fits the stereotype of mother-in-laws saying sharp things and being conniving
  • Orang Tua literal meaning: old people, actual meaning: parents (once again, no chill hahaha)
  • Puting Beliung or Pentil Meliut(Jawa) – literal meaning: spinning nipple, actual meaning: hurricane/tornado
  • Malu Malu Kuncing – literal meaning: shy shy cat, actual meaning: a person who is very shy (it’s meant to be funny and ironic because cats aren’t shy)
  • Panas Panas Tahi Ayam – literal meaning: hot hot chicken poop, actual meaning: the feeling of being really interested and enthusiastic about something but then slowly becoming disinterested
  • Pantat Ayamliteral meaning: chicken ass, actual meaning: this word refers to the temperature of someone whose body temperature is usually warmer than most people..I think it is used like a simile
  • Tahi Lalatliteral meaning: fly poop, actual meaning: beauty mark or moles
  • Pinang Dibelah Dua literal meaning: split areca nut, actual meaning: identical twins
  • Cabe Cabean literal meaning: chili pepper chili pepper, actual meaning: refers to girls who are doing “hot” or “bad” things such as 3 girls wearing short shorts on a motorbike (why, idk? Patriarchal BS where society is judging women by their lifestyle choices which I don’t approve of, however, I’ve heard people own the word and use it in a positive sense)
  • Terong Teronganliteral meaning: eggplant eggplant, actual meaning: refers to men who are also doing “hot” or “bad” things
  • Malas Gerak– shortened form: Mager, literal meaning: malas is lazy and gerak is move, actual meaning: too lazy to to move
  • Kepo literal meaning: [English] acronym for “Knowing Every Particular Object” , actual meaning: referring to someone who is very curious, invasive and nosey
  • Buang Air Besarliteral meaning: throw big water, actual meaning: to defecate (this phrase refers to pouring a lot of water in the toilet to flush it after you poop)
  • Buang Air Kecil literal meaning: throwing little water, actual meaning: to urinate (this phrase refers to pouring a little bit of water in the toilet to flush it after you pee)
  • Jijik Perlahan – shortened form: Jiper, literally meaning: slowly disgusted, actual meaning: refers to liking someone and slowly becoming disgusted by them overtime

You can probably guess by what I’ve written that I’m having a great time learning Bahasa Indonesia and some Bahasa Jawa. I’ve found myself in a very rare and particular opportunity to live in a place where locals use a total different language than the one I use. I am trying to capitalize on it and am still learning. I hope to continue even when I come back home to the United States.

Another Fun Fact: Apparently, Philadelphia has the largest Indonesian population in the U.S.! I’ll definitely be going there to brush up on my Bahasa Indonesia skills and eat some nasi pecel!


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