5 Indonesian phrases I wish we had in English

Alia Marsha (third from right) and her family celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Indonesia in 2011. "Every year, the younger siblings of the family would make visits to the older ones. Since my father is the youngest of 8 siblings, we would go to so many houses which was a curse because traffic but a blessing because food!" (Courtesy photo)
Alia Marsha (third from right) and her family celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Indonesia in 2011. “Every year, the younger siblings of the family would make visits to the older ones. Since my father is the youngest of 8 siblings, we would go to so many houses which was a curse because traffic but a blessing because food!” (Photo courtesy of Alia Marsha).

Upon learning about my Indonesian background, people often ask me which language I think or dream in: English or Indonesian? The answer is both.

For me, the beauty of being bilingual is that one language provides me words for experiences that the other cannot.
Born and raised in Jakarta, I left for two majority English-speaking countries: Singapore at 12 years old and Seattle at 16. Whenever possible now, I usually speak both Indonesian and English in the same conversation, if not the same sentence.

Indonesians love to shorten a phrase by combining words in it, which makes it difficult for people learning the language. Sometimes native speakers will even shorten words just to save time.

It feels like every time I go back to Indonesia, there are more slang words and their short-hands that I need to catch up on. I recently picked up an autobiographical novel by one of Indonesia’s most critically acclaimed authors, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Under the Suharto regime, he was arrested and sent to exile as a tapol, short for tahanan politik, which means “political prisoner.” I was slightly embarrassed that I had to Google this before I could continue reading the book.

Nonetheless, I am glad I know the words I know. Every now and then, I wish these words and expressions existed in English so I wouldn’t have to translate them and deprive them of their full essence:

1. Pulang kampung 

President Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, shows off his Indonesian language skills in 2011, starting with pulang kampung. 

Pulang (pronounced “poo-lung”) means “going back” or “going home,” and kampung (“kam-poong”) means “village.”

My first understanding of this phrase came about as I watched my parents’ live-in domestic helpers take a work leave, usually around the time of Eid al-Fitr, or the end of Ramadan. My parents would at least have two domestic helpers at any given time — as is common among the Indonesian upper-middle class — and they would take turns to pulang kampung every year.

In this instance, the phrase is said quite literally. Many domestic helpers come from villages all over Indonesia, though the ones my parents have had mainly came from Java, who migrated to big cities like Jakarta to earn a better living. Some of the women who helped raised me when both my parents worked full-time left their husbands and children behind, and they looked forward to pulang kampung once a year.

I have studied abroad for eight years now, and I try to come home once a year, usually in December. My homecoming would also be seen as an act of pulang kampung. In this instance, kampung is seen not only as a place, but also as a community, a feeling, a memory of what we left behind.

Some of what I left behind were Sunday mornings I spent eating porridge with my father on the couch while watching TV, and my tolerance for high humidity. It didn’t take long for Seattle to feel like another home to me. This leaves me with a perpetual act of pulang kampung, or as my friends and I like to say in English, we often leave home to come home.

2. Garing

via GIPHY

Garing (“gah-ring”) literally means “crispy.” You want your fried goods to be garing, but not your jokes.

If you say somebody is garing, you’re saying that their jokes are far from funny. I was informed by a fellow U.S.-based Indonesian who came back from pulang kampung that garing has evolved into ngereceh. Ngereceh contains the root word of receh, which means money in the form of coins. So if somebody’s joke is really garing — like they don’t put in any effort — it’s almost like they only get “participation points” in the form of loose change: ngereceh.

I have excessive anxiety when watching stand-up comedy: the fear that the person onstage will be so unfunny and the audience will be so quiet, that I will have to bear the burden of laughing or clapping no matter how insincerely. (This is the main reason I don’t watch stand-up comedy anymore). But when my ex-boyfriend would drag me to comedy clubs, I would pray on the way there: “Dear God, don’t let this person be too garing.”

3. Curhat 

You know, just some casual heart pouring of one's heart. No big deal. (Photo from Pixabay and republished via Creative Commons License 0)
You know, just some casual heart pouring of one’s heart. No big deal. (Photo from Pixabay and republished via Creative Commons License 0)

Curhat (“choor-hut”) is short for curahan hati, which translates closest to “the pouring of one’s heart.”

In my time living in mostly English-speaking countries, I haven’t been able to find a word or a phrase as vulnerable as this spoken casually. When I feel troubled or sad, I wouldn’t necessarily call my friend and say, “Hello, do you have time today? I need you to receive and process the pouring of my heart.”

If anything, this sounds like I’m about to profess my romantic love. But Indonesians would casually say to each other in public spaces, “I need to curhat right now.” I have also made international calls through Skype and WhatsApp in the middle of the night to listen to my friends’ curhat.

Curhat is not a mere act of complaining, it’s a (somehow) casual act of opening up your heart. Curcol is a related word short for curhat colongan. Colong means “stealing”. So curcol happens when you and your friend do not plan to curhat but it comes up for whatever reason, usually because your heart feels like it’s about to burst and you need to purge your troubles.

4. Pedekate (PDKT)

Pedekate (“peh-deh-ka-teh”) or PDKT, is short for pendekatan, which means the state of “getting close to.” In the context of romantic relationships, PDKT refers to the stage of flirting or getting to know a person.

I have always thought saying that you’re PDKT-ing with someone as more exciting than saying you’re “seeing” them.

PDKT is more active. You are literally saying that you are finding out more and more about the person and getting closer to them physically and emotionally before you are officially in a relationship with them. According to my observation, PDKT can last up tol six months in Indonesia. Mind you, my last witnessing of this situation was in 7th grade. Now in my early 20s, I wonder how on earth my peers endured such long periods of courtship at 12 years old.

The act of PDKT shows how seriously romantic relationships are done over there. In this stage, two people usually text, go out on dates, and shockingly, meet each others’ parents.

5. Masuk angin

The antidote to masuk angin is the medicine Tolak Angin, which literally translates as "reverse wind." (Screenshot is a mug sold on www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk)
The antidote to masuk angin is the medicine Tolak Angin, which literally translates as “reverse wind.” (Screenshot is a mug sold on www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk)

Masuk angin is pronounced “ma-sook angeen,” but who am I kidding? There isn’t an “ng” sound in English, so good luck trying to say this one out loud!

When I opened up my Facebook wall for suggestions for this list, nothing popped up more than masuk angin, which I had anticipated.

Masuk means “enter”, and angin means “wind.” Together, masuk angin is an ailment that I’m convinced only Indonesians get. People use masuk angin as an all-encompassing term to describe when they feel unwell with many symptoms, including upset stomach, slight cold, slight fever, headache and bloating.

Growing up, I was told and believed that some causes of masuk angin are lack of sleep, wearing clothes that are too revealing at night, standing too close to the air conditioner, and not eating enough rice.

When you say you have masuk angin, everyone in Indonesia would nod and understand what you mean. They might even offer you a medicine called Tolak Angin, which literally means “reject wind.”

Masuk is not a medical term, but people say this to excuse themselves from school or work. But saying to your boss, “Hi, wind has entered my body, can’t come to work today!” just won’t fly outside of Indonesia.

I hope this list convinces some of you to learn Indonesian. Who knows? Maybe soon I won’t be the only one laughing in Seattle movie theaters at critically-acclaimed, Indonesian-language movies such as “The Raid” and “The Act of Killing.”

3 Comments

  1. Thanks! I am writing because I am trying to translate a film for a n Indonesian filmmaker/friend, but I can’t for the life of mee find an English translation for the term soook. Can you possibly provide this? Thanks

    1. Hello. I’m Indonesian native. Do you mean “sok”? If that’s the word, I can explain you for a bit. Sok has 2 meanings. The first, is “go ahead” which means you can let someone do something they want. And the second, sok can mean as a condition where you see someone/something and you don’t like it. Example, when you see someone arrogant (because they are smart or rich), you’ll want to say “sok banget!”
      I hope you can find this useful. But I’m sorry if this isn’t the word that you are looking for^^

  2. Hello,
    I am searching for a company / product name in Indonesian or Balinese. It’d be great if you can help.
    Please let me now.

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