Indonesia is a country of superlatives.
It’s one of the world’s largest archipelagos, comprising some 1,700 islands and spanning more than 3,000 miles. It is the world’s fourth-most-populous nation and its third-largest democracy, comprising hundreds of ethnic groups, who speak more than 700 indigenous languages.
Uniting this massive and diverse country is Bahasa Indonesia, a Malay language that has absorbed elements of Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic, Sanskrit, English, and Spanish, among others. It is often spoken with a mix of local dialects and is constantly evolving.
Here are a couple of expressions:
Nasi telah menjadi bubur: Literally, it translates, “The rice has become a porridge/congee.” It’s typically used to describe a situation or predicament that cannot be undone. If you want to console someone in a helpless situation, you can say tambahkan saja dengan ayam (add shredded chicken) to make the best of it.
Gaptek: Short for gagap teknologi, it means “stuttering with technology,” or technologically illiterate. For example, my grandma got a smartphone and she’s no longer gaptek. It’s a useful word in a country where internet connectivity is skyrocketing.
Oleh-oleh: When Indonesians travel, we are expected to bring back souvenirs, or oleh-oleh.
Jabodetabek: The official name for the sprawling megacity that comprises Jakarta and neighboring Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, and Bekasi (it’s a kind of acronym of the five cities) and is home to some 30 million people.
Tidak apa-apa: Indonesians have a reputation for being easygoing. It’s common to employ this expression—which means, No problem. Everything’s fine—even when things are decidedly not fine.
Ke laut aja!: “Just go to the sea!” A more playful take on the “rice has become congee” expression, this expression also responds to a hopeless situation, like getting stuck in Jakarta’s infamous traffic on the way to the airport. Given that some 70 percent of Indonesian territory is in the sea, you’re never too far from the water.
Dari Sabang sampai Merauke: “From Sabang to Merauke.” Sabang is Indonesia’s westernmost town, Merauke its easternmost, more than 3,000 miles away. This is Indonesians’ version of “from sea to shining sea,” and it’s meant to signal unity in a diverse, multilingual, and sprawling country. You’ll hear politicians use the phrase often.