To be or not to be “borrowed barley sack”

꿔다 놓은 보릿자루 is a common expression in Korea, which literally means “borrowed barley sack” (Note that I deliberately didn’t use any article since we do not have articles in the Korean language, and yes, that would look strange to English speakers 😄). 

This phrase refers to a person who is taking up a space, but not saying a word, like a sack. The expression originated during the Joseon era (aka Yi dynasty, the latest dynasty in Korea prior to Japanese occupation and current day Korea). Some nobles gathered to overthrow an evil tyrant ruler. Of course, these people would be wary of being discovered and later tortured and killed for plotting against the absolute ruler. During one secret meeting, someone noticed there was another person in the room who he didn’t know. Everyone was scared only to discover it was just an outerwear lying on top of a barley sack someone had borrowed that day. So from then on, if there is a person in the room who’s sitting silently, taking up a spot, but not contributing, that person would be 꿔다 놓은 보릿자루.

It is a phrase often used for a non-contributing member, so can refer to someone who’s not doing their part. However, when I was young, it was often used to describe how children should behave. It would be akin to a phrase in English, “children should be seen and not heard.”

As a child, I had a difficult time with this edict, especially because I thought conflicting messages were coming from adults. I totally blame my confusion on me being perhaps too literal, too precocious and/or having opinions. My initial thought was, if I were supposed to behave like a borrowed barley sack, I should literally be a sack. No sound, no movement, nothing. But no, I was still required to be the first one to smile, bow, and clearly say hello to visiting adults before they did so. Not doing so would be a terribly rude thing and my parents would lose face. I was extremely uncomfortable with people, ‌thanks to being isolated and not allowed to go outside to play through most of my childhood (and yes, I once drew a picture of myself inside a jail as me being at home). For me, this supposedly well-mannered behavior I had to follow was one of the most awful things I could imagine as a child.

After the greeting, I was also required to be a non-sack whenever any adult felt like talking to me, but had to turn back into a sack after monosyllabic/short phrase responses to whatever they asked. I think I was a precocious child. I had opinions and things to say about whatever questions adults occasionally threw at me. But well, a sack that turns into a non-sack apparently was not allowed to have an opinion. So when I did talk a bit more than typical yes or no/short phrase answers, some adults found me amusing, but others would label me as ill-mannered. And my parents got upset about me for talking when asked to talk.

You see my confusion there?

I did once voice my opinion about my confusion, but I was shut down, well, more like scared into not speaking, and I became a true sack.

So here I am, an adult, in America, where a person is probably only valued for speaking out and advocating for themselves. Let’s say I spent many years of my life here trying to metamorphose myself out of being a sack. Was I successful? I’m not sure. I guess all I can say is I’m tired of being pushed in either direction. I just want to be, well, ME.

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