FYI, ‘Besok’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Tomorrow’


One day, you need help with something and you ask your Indonesian friend. He seems busy at the time but you ask, nonetheless, in Indonesian. He says, “Oke. Saya kerjakan besok, ya.” The next when you meet him, he hasn’t done it. You’re confused and a little bit frustrated.

Lexically speaking [in any Indonesian-English dictionaries you read], “tomorrow” means “besok”, but why when an Indonesian says “besok” it doesn’t always mean “tomorrow”. Why?

From the perspective of an Indonesian (me), Indonesians have a vague concept of time; well, at least with this word. This vagueness can be seen in our so-called “ngaret” or “jam karet”, the habit of coming up late. Young people nowadays make jokes, saying that “otw [on the way] means you’re still in your bed, trying to get up”. One of my students, a German who worked for her social year in Nias Island, told me a story when she was invited to a youth meeting in a church in South Nias. She came at the exact hour she was told to but, much to her surprise, the others showed up two hours later. She was pissed off, but she learned one important lesson; to come up two hours after any appointed time.

For many Indonesians, aside from “tomorrow”, “besok” can mean sometime in the future. It’s a word that, to some extent, can be seen as nonspecific and ambiguous. I’m not trying to discourage you from your learning, but whenever an Indonesian says “besok” to you, don’t hesitate to ask “besok,’besok’ atau besok kapan-kapan?”

PS: This happens with the words “nanti” and “kemarin” as well. “Nanti” can mean “later (on the same day)” or just like besok (some time in the future). “Kemarin”, on the other hand, can mean “yesterday” or “sometime in the past”.

Do you have similar experiences? Share it in the comment section below!