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Faux Pas and other Bahasa Learning Bloopers

Having Fun while Learning Bahasa Indonesia

Being able to laugh at mistakes you made as a newcomer to Indonesia is great fun. Here, Expat Forum visitors share some of their 'bahasa blooper' moments with us all, telling of mistakes they made when first learning to speak Bahasa Indonesia!

My first year with a friend in central Java.  We got on a bus and the driver asked us to sit up in the 'nice' seats in front.  I turned to my friend and said: "Ahh, seperti binatang". (binatang is animal - meant to say bintang or star)

Once when we were riding a bike at night, my Indonesian wife screamed "Polisi Tidur!!". I was like "Ono opo? Dimana polisi?". For a moment I was worried that we were in trouble or something since she mentioned Polisi. But after a hard bump and some frantic explanations from her side I realised that speedbreakers are called polisi tidur here. Note: in British English, a speed bump is also called a "sleeping policeman".

My most embarrassing Bahasa bloopers story: I was working as a pilot with a domestic airline. The crews were transported between their homes and the airport in a fleet of company owned mini-buses with very polite drivers who would try very hard not to show amusement at some of my early efforts to learn the language. My best blooper was just a bit much for some of them (sniggers gave way to a few guffaws) when I burst into the transport section office, and in front of half a dozen drivers who were hanging about having a smoke, I said that I was expecting some pubic hairs at 7.00am tomorrow! Jemput: to call for or to pick up Jembut: Pubic hair There is only one letter in it but it sure makes a difference in the meaning!

On first arrival I spent a fraught few minutes searching for a carrot (wortel) rather than a telephone service (wartel) which amused some locals. I also called a tailor (penjahit) a criminal (penjahat).

I have been living in Indonesia for almost five years now. When I first arrived, a tukang pemulung (rag and bone man) asked me if I had any koran.

I mistakenly thought that he wanted the Al-Koran to read, I politely told him in my newly learnt Bahasa Indonesia, "Maaf pak, saya orang Kristen, saya tak baca koran."

He went away, thinking I must be one Christian who had missed out on reading the newspaper (which he was hoping to recycle for me!).

Bahasa Teacher: “What do you say to a waiter when you want to order ice lemon tea?”

Expat student: “Saya mau es teh manis? I don’t know lemon in Indonesian.”

Bahasa Teacher: “You can say lemon as lemon. But lemon in Bahasa is actually jeruk nipis.

Expat student: “Got it. Jeruk pipis…”

Bahasa Teacher: “Huh?”

Expat student“Jeruk pipis?”

Bahasa Teacher: *laughing* “Seriously, I wouldn’t recommend ordering that!”

Explanation: Pipis in Indonesian means to pee….

Bahasa Teacher: “So in Indonesia, the noun is followed by the adjective, not the other way around as in English. Like black cat is kucing hitam, shoe brand is merek sepatu (read: mé-reuq or mérck).”

Expat student: “Wait, let me write this down, what is brand again? How do you spell it”

Bahasa Teacher: "M-E-R-E-K"

Expat student:“Okay, merek" (he pronounced it as mé-reck, as in wreck)

Bahasa Teacher: *laughing* "Say it again?”

Expat student:“Mé-reck”

Bahasa Teacher: *laughing* “No no no….Not mé-reck, but mé-reuq..They mean two different things”

Expat student:“Okay….What’s the difference?”

Bahasa Teacher:“Merek (mé-reuq) means brand, and merek (mé-reck) means to sell your body for money.

Expat student: *laughing* “I see….The other one has nothing to do with shoe brand, does it?”

Bahasa Teacher:“Afraid not”

Expat student: “I apparently have a natural instinct for dirty words, don’t I?”

Bahasa Teacher: “Afraid so….If you merek, it means that you are a perek…a prostitute.”

Expat student: “Hmmm…Thanks for the info!”

Bahasa Teacher: “!!!!!!!!!!”

I had been studying for two years at university, however this was my first actual experience IN Indonesia. I had a couple of days in Bali on my way up to Ambon (many years ago, when it was still a beautiful and peaceful place). I needed to ring home and let the family know that I was safe and well and I asked a guy in a shop where the wartel was. He was very puzzled and obviously didn't have a clue what I was trying to say. Eventually I used sign language and he got the message. I guess I was saying wortel but up until that point I thought I was pretty good at Indonesian - as long as I spoke to my lecturers!

wartel (telecommunications shop/kiosk) vs. wortel (carrot)

The other day when mum had prepared fried snack made from sweet potato for a visiting friend, this friend complimentary saying "Saya suka IBU goreng" instead of saying "Saya suka UBI goreng."

I like fried mother (ibu) vs. I like fried sweet potatoe (ubi)

We went to a Pencak Silat competition in Semarang and after to a meal in a restaraunt. Being Christmas time there was an Indonesian Santa, all 5'7" and 100 lbs of him. As I shook his hand my tiredness and the incongruity of the white beard and chocolate eyes of the jolly fellow in red before mecaused me to say as I opened my mouth a "Saya Hari Natal" instead, of course "Selamat Hari Natal" Not to worry as Semarang Santa was gleeful at this thinking that he had met a brother in christmas cheer.

"Saya Hari Natal" (I am Christmas) vs. "Selamat Hari Natal" (Merry Christmas)

Very early in my studies of Bahasa Indonesia, I meant to ask an Indonesian lady the time, and said 'Berapa jam?' she looked at me in all seriousness, looked down at her wrist, and said 'Satu!'

(berapa jam? [how many watches/clocks?] vs jam berapa? [what time is it?]

Another barely repeatable one happened when I was living in Java and went to a local market to get some tempe (fermented soy-bean cake), unaware that the word is one vowel away from a Javanese obscenity relating to female anatomy. You can imagine the reaction when I marched up to a little old market lady and asked "Can I buy some c**t?

“Can I have a bowl of gado-gado salad, please?” Waiter:“Certainly Ma'am.” She quickly added:“O, tolong jangan panas, okay?” (she meant 'tolong jangan pedas' which means 'not hot as in 'spicy'- instead she said 'tolong jangan panas' which means 'not hot-temperature wise')

“Certainly Ma'am, one 'gado-gado tidak panas' for you,” the waiter walked away with a smile, thinking how ignorant some foreigners are; gado-gado is never served 'panas'.

Five minutes later, the waiter came back with a bowl of 'not hot' gado-gado salad, fully infused with tiny red friggin' chillies.

(panas-hot temperature vs pedas-hot-spicy)

He said: “My mother is sick.” Ibu saya sakit.
I said: “I'm very happy”. Saya senang sekali. but should have said Sayang sekali.

(senang sekali-very happyvs. sayang sekali-oh that's too bad)

The waiter asked,“Would you like your steak raw, medium or well done, Sir?” The expat, very proud with his bahasa Indonesia, said: “Setengah mati!”

(He meant to say: 'setengah matang' which means 'half done', instead he said 'setengah mati' which means 'half dead').

Intending to ask someone to open the window (tolong buka jendela) ... but it comes out ... please take off your pants! (tolong buka celana)

(buka jendela-open the window vs buka celana-take off your pants)

Everyone has said to someone at some point in time: I would like to meet the village coconut.

(kelapa desa (village coconut)vs. kepala desa-Village Head)

When I first arrived and wanting to establish myself as quick as possible, I asked my charges to teach me some Bahasa, of which one was what my job was ( which everybody seems to ask upon first meeting). “No worries, coach,” the boys said. After much practice I was confident in being able to speak the phrase. At a dinner, the presidents wife asked me what my actual job was, and I proudly said “Saya amput ayam muda!” Needless to say the president's wife has not spoken to me to this day!!

(amput- vs. ayam muda-young chicken)

While visiting a new friend's home I was offered a glass of air jeruk (orange juice). Thinking that I was showing appreciation I said “Oh, jorok!” (disgusting/dirty). I sure made everyone feel malu (embarassed).

(air jeruk-orang juice vs. jorok-disgusting/dirty)

When I first arrived in Indonesia, I asked my driver what “kijang” meant, as most cars seemed to be Toyota Kijang. He said it means an animal (it does, but more specifically - it means a type of antelope). Weeks later I saw a really weird woolly goat on the roadside that looked like a cross between Bob Marley and a pile of leaves, and asked the (new) driver in Indonesian “What kind of a kijang is that?” The guy looked at me like was the strangest person on the planet, and drove on.

I thought the sign on the Bogor toll road saying “Semen Tiga Roda” must be some kind of club for men with three testicles.

(semen-cement vs. semen)

I've asked what time the kereta sapi leaves for Yogya.

(kereta api-train vs. kereta sapi - cow train)

But what about muda / mudah - I was terrified of using these for fear of offending young (easy) women.

(mudah-easy vs. muda-young)

I was taught a salutary lesson by a Malaysian friend who complained he always confused “chicken” with “kitchen”. When I laughed, he got me to order the chili crab in Cantonese. The waitress stalked off in disgust. Still don't know what I said, but he tells me it was something unpleasant about her mother.

If you hear someone saying to you (in Bahasa):
Kuku-kuku kaki kakak kakekku kaku kaku ...” (pronounced - kookookakeekakakkakekkookakookakoo)

... it actually means : “The toenails of my grandfather's elder brother are stiff” :)

Early difficulties in learning bahasa Indonesia are often related to the need to understand the structure of Indonesian words. Once you can get rid of the ter-, meng-, pem- and other suffixes and find the root word ... it's much easier to look things up in a dictionary. For example ... membuka - look up buka; mencari - look up car!

Questionable Marketing Strategies - Signs in Bahasa Indonesia

English speakers may get a chuckle at the 'not-so-hidden' meanings in English of the names given to products and offices in Indonesia!

  • an insecticide named Swallow
  • a toilet bowl cleaner named Kling
  • a bank named IFI
  • a water filter company named Yuki
  • a sea food restaurant named Jakarta Bay
  • a restaurant on the road to Ceribon named 'RM Anus' (RM stands for rumah makan which means restaurant)
  • a refreshing drink called Pocari Sweat
  • cooking cat signs 'cat oven' which actually refer to a oven-bake auto painting workshop!

These memories are the are the results of great postings on the Living in Indonesia Expat Forum ... started by ms.

For more fun: 19 Of The Funniest Indonesian Expressions (And How To Use Them)