Tidak vs. Belum: It’s about outlook

A statue of the Buddha looks out over Borobudur, central Java.

A statue of the Buddha looks out over Borobudur, central Java.

Let’s assume you have never visited China, and have no plans to do so. If I asked you in English, ‘Have you visited China?’, what would you say? Probably just “no,” which in Indonesian is tidak. In Indonesia, however, you would not say tidak in this case. You’d use a different word: belum. Belum’s literal translation is not yet.

To give another example: If I asked if you had eaten gado-gado, a traditional dish with vegetables and peanut sauce, you would answer belum for not yet. The only exception would be if you were, say, allergic to peanuts — and so you would say tidak for “no” and probably specify that you cannot ever eat peanuts or you might die. Otherwise, even if you have never considered eating gado-gado and you live in the U.S. where it would be difficult to find, you would still say not yet.

I like to think of this as a difference in outlook. No is very final. But life is full of surprises. You never know when an Indonesian will invite you for dinner, or when you’ll win a free trip to China. So just say not yet. (Others view this as a way to avoid confrontation, which is very important in Indonesian culture, but that is a topic for future posts).  In any case, you might end up doing something you never expected to, and you’d hate to negate the possibility with a no. I like to think that’s the idea behind the heavy use of the word belum instead of tidak in Indonesian language.

About Katherine

Katherine lived on four different continents before settling in to Washington, D.C., to raise her family. She works at a global think tank during the day and raises twin boys the rest of the time. When she isn't working on a spreadsheet for work, she loves walking in the forest with her family, which invariably involves stomping in puddles and climbing on logs. Though she is less of a world traveler these days, she continues to seek out adventures, from exploring D.C.'s museums and playgrounds to taking road trips to national parks. When it's time to unwind, she can be found snuggling with her husband on the couch. Likes: adventures, sleeping past 7 a.m., being surrounded by forests, the sound of her boys laughing, and locally made ice cream. Dislikes: whining, the patriarchy, and people who judge parents/kids.
This entry was posted in Culture, Indonesia, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tidak vs. Belum: It’s about outlook

  1. lynnshea says:

    Interesting how the subtlety of language reflects the cultural outlook on life. I love the idea of being open to new possibilities, Cornell, Quito, Jakarta…

  2. Meg Windecker says:

    Wonderful post…wonderful insight.
    I am sometimes frustrated by life- I think my new answer to all things is “not yet” …life IS full of surprises!

  3. Rizal says:

    That’s a really interesting observation Katherine, I’m sure most Indonesians (including me for sure) never would’ve thought of that!
    I guess that has something to do with the nature of native speakers taking their language for granted. But also such observations can only be made by those with critical thinking capabilities, which I’d say is one of the strongest points of western liberal arts education.
    Look forward to read more of your cultural observations :)

  4. Katherine says:

    I am so glad that you liked it Rizal! I’ll do my best to portray your homeland accurately, and I look forward to many interesting discussions!

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