What are your pronouns?

​Miss Rebecca, the mad scientist, celebrates Halloween with English club students.

​Miss Rebecca, the mad scientist, celebrates Halloween with English club students.

— By Rebecca Selin —

Let’s talk about pronouns. Yes, those little words like you, me, he, she, zee, they, hirs, etc. I’m no linguist, but Indonesia may be the world capital of pronouns. There are (at least) three first-person pronouns and dozens of possible second-person pronouns (I say “possible” because titles can also function as pronouns). Deciding which pronouns to use depends on the age and status of the person you’re talking to relative to your own age and status. Third person pronouns are a breeze: dia for everyday use, or beliau for referring to important people such as Joko Widodo or my school’s headmaster. Both of these third-person pronouns are gender-neutral and do not change based on their grammatical purpose. Unfortunately, the simplicity of third-person pronouns doesn’t even come close to making up for the labyrinth that is first- and second-person pronouns in Bahasa Indonesia.

During my time in Indonesia, I’ve discovered that I have four distinct personas: Miss Selin, Miss Rebecca, Kak* Rebecca, and Rebecca. At first, I thought this was because I was having a hard time reconciling my American self with Indonesian cultural expectations. I felt like I was being dishonest as uber-respectful, quiet, and diplomatic Miss Selin and Miss Rebecca. Then, I thought it wasn’t fair for the recipients of Miss Selin/Miss Rebecca that I loosened up a bit as cool, slightly-older role-model, Kak Rebecca. Should just-plain Rebecca even exist, since I’m supposed to be a cultural ambassador? Is Rebecca too wild-and-free, what with her staying out past 9 PM and learning not-so-proper Indonesian vocabulary? I may struggle with this identity issue as long as I live in Indonesia, but I’ve also realized that this is something not only foreigners face in this country. I often see Indonesians my age similarly switch personas as based on their audience, which is a sort of code-switching. The various circles of identity seem to boil down to the pronouns used within each circle. Allow me to walk you through my world of pronouns:

1. Miss Selin

Miss Selin exists only for the cultural and linguistic benefit of my students. While everyone defaults to “Miss Rebecca”, I figured it would be a nice little lesson on American culture to go by “Miss Selin”, since that’s what I would be called at a typical American high school. Miss Selin inhabits a world of English language pronouns. This is a piece of cake. I, you, he, she, they, we: done . When she does digress into Bahasa Indonesia, she uses the informal second-person kamu for her students and the standard (somewhat formal) personal pronoun saya for herself. Miss Selin is serious about kids paying attention in English class, but not too proud to make an enormous fool of herself every so often.

2. Miss Rebecca

Most teachers at my school, with the exception of a few who are around my age, call me Miss Rebecca. Miss Rebecca is probably the most restrained of my personas. Miss Rebecca always tries to come across as very respectful and well-behaved. I have a hard time feeling like myself as Miss Rebecca. I use saya for myself, and do not use second-person pronouns when talking to other teachers. Instead, I use their titles as stand-ins for pronouns: Ibu (lit. mother) for women and Pak (lit. father) for men, which is fairly common practice. Ibu and Bapak (Bu and Pak for short) are comparable to Mrs. and Mr., but their use is much more culturally mandatory. If I’m talking to an Ibu, and want to ask “Have you eaten lunch yet?” (Apakah Anda sudah makan siang?), I instead say “Has mother eaten lunch yet?” (Apakah Ibu sudah makan siang?). I’ve never translated that directly to English before, and I’m cracking up right now imagining myself talking to a coworker in America and asking “has mother eaten lunch yet?”.

In the beginning of my grant, I had an intense internal conflict about what pronouns to use with teachers around my age. I was petrified that they would think I was being weirdly formal if I called them “Ibu”, but I was even more terrified of being considered impudent if I called them “Mbak” (older sister in Javanese, but generally accepted for people of any ethnic background) or “Kakak” (older sibling in Indonesian). I always used “Ibu” just to be safe, but was afraid that I was making our relationships unnecessarily formal. Once, when I went to lunch at a nearby warung (which, incidentally, is run by the family of a good friend and coworker) with SMK 2’s 25-year-old art teacher, I had a chance to ask her about my dilemma. She said that when we’re at school, I should always use Ibu, but I can call her Kak outside of school. This is similar to how teachers don’t call each other by their first names (at least not in front of students) at schools in America.

I allow the students in my English extracurriculars to call me Miss Rebecca. However, that Miss Rebecca is pretty much the same as Miss Selin. Since I spend more time with these students, and sometimes I hang out with them almost as if they were my peers, it feels overly formal for them to call me Miss Selin.

3. Kak Rebecca

Kak Rebecca doesn’t really get out much. Some of the girls who live in my kosan (similar to a dormitory) and all of the members of LLC (Language Learning Club) at Universitas Lampung call me Kak. Otherwise , I’m usually just Miss Selin, Miss Rebecca, or Rebecca.

When I am Kak Rebecca, I am a cool, slightly older friend. While I don’t feel much of a status difference between myself and university students, they apparently do. So, I respect their need to use a title to refer to me. Miss makes me feel rather uncomfortable since under no circumstances would anyone other than a little kid or a customer service person call me Miss in America.

As Kak Rebecca, I get to loosen up a bit and use the informal second-person pronoun kamu when I talk to my friends. Kamu can be used for anyone younger than you. I think you might also be able to use it with friends who are older than you, but this is pending further observation. I’m still afraid to use it when I could use Kak or Abang (older brother) instead. I also can call these younger friends by their names only. Or at least I think I can. In any case, no one has reproached me for doing so.

4. Rebecca saja (Rebecca only)

When I am just plain Rebecca, I often feel like I am putting down a heavy suitcase full of cultural-adaptation baggage. With most of my friends from UKMBS (student arts organization), the UniLa international student program, and the Couchsurfing Lampung meetup group, I am just plain Rebecca. For some of them, this is because they know that titles are not very important in American culture. For others, it is because I am significantly younger. It feels nice to just be called Rebecca. I don’t feel like I have to fill any sort of role other than being myself.

I am also just plain Rebecca to my two Indonesian mothers: Ibu Halima and her sister-in-law, Atu (Bahasa Lampung for older sister) Christin. Their husbands also just call me Rebecca. I suppose this is because I am like a young relative to them. It would feel pretty strange if my Indonesian “family” called me Miss. Thankfully, they don’t.

As Rebecca, I often use the informal first person pronoun aku to refer to myself. Aku is used when speaking with close friends or with people older or higher-ranking than you. This means that children primarily refer to themselves as aku. Sometimes I am afraid that the overuse of aku in these settings makes me sound like a big baby. I suppose I’ll just have to wait until someone corrects me.

Although people in these circles call me Rebecca, it is in these circles that I have the hardest time finding the proper pronouns for others. For example, if I meet a 40-year-old man in a social context, do I call him Pak or Abang? This is quite the conundrum! For men, I usually go with the less formal Abang because of the informal context. No one has corrected me yet, but I usually avoid using the second-person in these situations. Maybe I am being incredibly fresh, but I hope not. In any case, I probably get the benefit of the doubt because of my bule status. Oddly enough, while I default to the less formal address for men, I’m much more likely to default to Ibu for women. Usually, women who are literal Ibus (mothers) have an undeniable Ibu-like air about them, so I don’t think twice about calling them Ibu. Married women also don’t often figure into the social circles that I am in.

Now for a whole REALM of slang pronouns that Rebecca is privy to but rarely uses. These are “gua” and “gue” for the first person and “loh” for the second person. They are extremely informal. I’ve been encouraged to use them by some friends who seem very invested in the development of my slang vocabulary. However, I don’t feel the need to use these pronouns yet. I’m afraid I’ll slip into using them when I’m in a more formal context and it will look very sloppy. I think those interested parties are actually just looking to be amused by my attempts at “Bahasa gaul” (lit. , something like “cool language”, but in actuality just slang). These pronouns seem to be the norm in Indonesian text- and internet-speak.

5. A final note.

There is one pronoun I didn’t go over: Anda. Anda is the formal second-person pronoun. I never use Anda, and I rarely hear it outside of a customer service or formal speech setting. Anda is apparently somewhat new, linguistically speaking. It is used primarily in business settings. Rather than use Anda, I always just substitute titles (Kak, Bang, Ibu, Pak) as pronouns.

I also didn’t explain one common “title”: adik . I have only been called adik a small handful of times. It means “little sibling”. You can pretty much universally call small children adik, or dik for short. I think close friends who are older can call their friends adik too.

*Kak short for Kakak, is the Indonesian word for an older sibling of either gender. It is pronounced Ka, but with a glottal stop at the end. A glottal stops is like the sound, or sudden lack of sound, that happens when British people omit double t’s in words like “bitter”, “butter”, and “better”. Glottal stops will cause you to leave your mouth gaping after any Indonesian word that ends in a “k” preceded by a vowel. Pak and adik also end with glottal stops.

**The next step up from street food carts. Warungs can be permanent structures or street-side tarp tents reassembled every day. While street food carts (kaki lima: lit.“five legs”) usually only serve one food item, a warung usually has at least a few dishes to choose from. Warungs always have at least a few chairs or plastic stools and also offer their food dibungkus ( lit. bundled, but it just means to go).

Rebecca Selin is a 2014 graduate of Oberlin College, where she majored in geology. She is currently placed at SMKN 2, an industrial trades vocational high school in Bandar Lampung. When she’s not with her students, Rebecca can be found karaokeing, learning regional music, or exploring the southern reaches of Sumatra with her new friends and “family”.

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