Misadventures In Language

A little over a month has passed since my arrival in Indonesia and my days are melting quite nicely into a routine of teaching, coffee shops and weekend trips. In this time I have experienced the many quirks that make up this strange country and am slowly becoming more culturally acclimated, most prominently shown by learning to speak the language. Okay, that’s a stretch… more accurately, I’ve been surviving off of the approximately one hundred words I know and hoping that I will magically become fluent. Yes, that sounds more like it. As you can imagine my linguistic progress has been less than impressive.

I should really try to study it more, but when you teach English at a school where literally everyone wants to speak English with you, the incentive to learn Indonesian fades a little to background noise. Sure, they love if I say random words like “luar biasa!” (amazing!) or they giggle when I try to say something as simple as the local word for “Monday,” but in the end they don’t want me to speak their language, they want to learn mine. Because of this, I am doing a sort of learn-on-the-go self-taught program, and by “program” I mean 6 pieces of paper that constitute an Indonesian-English dictionary and occasionally enlisting the help of Google Translate. 

Cut me some slack, I’m kind of trying here.

Luckily, Indonesian is a fairly simple language, so it’s mostly memorization of vocab at this point.  They don’t bother with words like the, a, is, or are. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Past and future tenses are also non-existent, and plurals are considerably rare. In any case, I’ve had my fair share of amusing encounters in the learning process and today I am here to share a few of them. The cultural learning curve is steep, guys, let me tell you.

But first, let me bombard you with pictures from teaching at school:

Okay, now that we have out of the way we may proceed…


Perhaps the most embarrassing of them all… I was told that “da da” was an informal way to say goodbye in Indonesian. I was excited to have a new word in my arsenal, especially a slang one, so naturally I began to use it at absolutely every chance I could. I would proudly say, “Da da, guys!” as I waved to students and administrators at the end of the work day or add a quick “Thanks, da da!” when leaving a cafe.

Innoncent, right?

Then, one day I decided to study the words for body parts in Indonesian. I read words like kaki (leg), hati (heart), mata (eyes), dada (chest or breasts)… Wait, what?

Had I spent the last week excitedly yelling “boobs!” to people!? 

Had I been casually walking around the school shouting obscenities with a ginormous smile on my face!? Was I leaving classrooms saying, “Great class today kids, boobs boobs!” Mortified, I asked a fellow teacher, who of course laughed at me, then explained that yes, dada means chest or breasts, but that da da also meant goodbye, and that people knew what I meant when I said it.


Regardless, I’ve since benched the word from my vocab game and opted for other options, just to be safe.

My victims of obscenities students


To get to know my students (all 800 of them…), I had them write their name on the whiteboard and something about themselves. Most answers were pretty generic and left a lot to be desired, I like swimming, listening to music, cats or the color blue, though every now and then a fun one popped up that made me smile. In an Indonesian sea of cat-loving swimmers, answers like I like armadillos, slime, and ghosts were sure to be appreciated. Kudos to you kids for standing out in a place that encourages ya’ll to be the same. Keep shining you beautiful children, you!

One day, a kid wrote “I like gravvity” and I became tickled with joy. Did he just give a shout-out to science? Does he know Bill Nye the Science Guy!? This kid must be so down to Earth! (Have I ever mentioned my affinity bad puns?) I ended up giving him two thumbs up and saying, “Very cool, science!” to which he looked awfully confused. Naturally, this in turn confused me, so in our state of mutual confusion he uttered a slew of words including, “no” and “paint” and “street.” Ahhhh. You see, this dear boy did not like gravity, oh no, what he liked was graffiti. Figures as much. And the age old debate of art versus science continues on..


Gravity Graffiti


Things to know about Indonesians:

1. They LOVE taking pictures

2. Their sense of time is extremely skewed; 10 minutes can mean anything between 5 seconds and 10 hours

Taking these facts into consideration it is safe to say that “just one picture!” and “fast picture please!” means nothing remotely close to the the number “one” or the speed known as “fast.” They love selfies and when a young white girl pops up all hell breaks lose. I am asked for my picture all the time and one day an older co-worker asked for a photo together. After 17 pictures from 6 different angles that at one point included 8 other people, she giddily exclaimed that she couldn’t wait to show the picture of us to her doctor. What? I was very confused. Was she heading to the clinic soon and going to say, “Hey Doc, can you look at this weird cut on my foot? Also, check out this white girl I have a picture with!”

Whatever, Indonesia is the weirdest country ever so I didn’t question it.

I realized later that she probably meant daughter, not doctor. Indonesian doesn’t use soft g’s, so they mistakenly pronounce many English words with a hard “g” making “daughter” sound like “dogter.” Ahhhhhh, mystery solved! (And far less strange than the former scenario.)

There is no such thing as “one quick picture”


I drive a motorbike everyday (I can practically see my Mom cringing through the screen 8,000 miles away), and obviously have to fill up the gas tank. At the station, the attendant asks how much gas I want and the first few times I just mimed what I interpreted “full” to be in the language of broken hand gestures. After doing this dance a couple of times, I decided that “full” was a word that needed to be added to my vocabulary. I googled the word and used it the next few times I went. 

“Berapa?” the gas attendant said, or “how much?” to which I proudly smiled and said “kenyang!” or, “full!” They looked at me like I was crazy and asked again, “Berapa?” Disappointed, and looking like a kicked puppy at my failure, I resorted back to my miming. This went on about three times.

Eventually I learned that Indonesians have specific words for very specific things. In English, the word “full” encompasses everything from the fullness of glasses with liquids to the amount of joy in your heart. In Indonesian, penuh means “to fill” and kenyang means “to be filled from food.”

So every time the attendant asked how much gas I wanted, I had excitedly responded with the amount of food I’d eaten that day. Basically the following is what transpired on multiple occasions:

Attendant: “How much gas?”

Me: “I ate a really big lunch today!” 

Attendant: “No, how much gas do you want?”

Me: “Seriously guys, I’m really full, no more food please!”

I’d look at me like I was crazy, too.


I could go on and on with all the amusing instances of language miscommunications. Like the time I asked a student what the topic for his paper was and, like lightning, he ran to his backpack and put on his traditional Islamic hat only to run back to me as if waiting for more instructions. I realized he thought I said “topi,” the Indonesian word for “hat,” rather than “topic.”

But to save myself from too much embarrassment and because I’m sure you don’t have the time to read 85 pages worth of a post, I will leave it at that and just say that these little encounters add spice to the already seasoned meal known as culutral acclimation. If incorrect language is the spice, then I’m making one hell of a hot dish.



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Sloth enthusiast, Nutella extremist, and all around sassy human with a deep love for hoppy beer and discovering the world's many gems. Currently gallivanting the globe while drinking more coffee than necessary.

10 thoughts on “Misadventures In Language

  1. I had so much fun reading this!!! I can’t imagine how many misadventures I also had: I work with people from all over the world every day so I’m sure here and there I got my 5 minutes of glory. I had some language misunderstandings in Portuguese and Samoan and in both cases they were sexual-related. I felt so ashamed!


  2. I love the fact that you are teaching yourself the language. Sure it might be slower but it is your own effort. I like picking up new languages. Every time I travel to a new place, I learn words and phrases. The language that I am constantly in the process of learning is French. And on that note I shall peace out with the famous words, ‘dada’ 😀


  3. I really enjoyed your post. It was a cool mix of information about Indonesia, the culture, teaching, anecdotes and pictures.
    Your story about the double meaning of words was funny.
    And by the way, super cool, to teach in Indonesia!


    1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! All these experiences were much funnier for me in hindsight, but I love little cultural differences, they always make me smile. Teaching here is also quite an experience and can be equally rewarding as it is challenging.

      PS. I perused your blog and love all the posts on Colombia, I can’t wait to visit one day 🙂


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