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Apa kabar? Ke mana?

Indonesia, January 14, 2011

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When I was getting ready to come to Indonesia, I downloaded podcasts to start learning Bahasa Indonesia. The first thing I learned was "Apa kabar?” — literally “What’s news?” or, as translated by the podcast, “How are you?”

In English, we say “How are you?” so much that we don’t actually listen to the response. We expect a “fine” and a smile, and then we get on with the conversation or continue on our way. When I arrived in Indonesia I thought I was being polite when every time I’d meet someone I’d ask “Apa kabar?” thinking I was saying “How are you?”

I came to be known as the “Apa kabar bule” (Bahasa Indonesia for "foreigner"), always asking the same thing.

The other common phrase is “Ke mana?” which literally means, “To where?” When I first arrived, I thought it was kind of intrusive to be asked where I was going all the time. I’d say “I’m going to the store” or “going to the bank” or “going for a walk”. Eventually I’d just say, “I’m going there” and point in the direction I was going towards. I never had a very special destination, and I just couldn’t understand why everyone wanted to know where I was going. Every day, I'd wonder: why were people so nosy?

It’s almost six months since I first arrived in Indonesia, and I’m still learning the language. Recently, I felt enlightened when I was explained that the questions: “What’s news?” and “Where are you going?” are because of the tight-knit community that we live in. For protection and survival, people need to know where others are so that, if something goes wrong, they know where to find you.

Here in Indonesia, it’s more than polite — it’s survival.