Expat Life: Family Photos - Making The Cut

MsCaroline's maternal grandmother and her eldest uncle, ca. 1918.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a friend's home for dinner.  It was a lovely evening - good food and wine, good conversation, and a breathtaking view of Seoul's sparkling evening cityscape. Like most expat homes in Seoul, S's villa was furnished by her landlord and appointed with a few things she'd brought with her from home, along with souvenirs she'd purchased in her travels around Seoul and the rest of Asia.  What interested me most of all was not the souvenirs - although I do admit coveting her 1800s-era map of Seoul - but the family photos.  Not many, mind you:  a few images of her family and friends; one of her daughter as a baby; and a photo of herself and her husband, young and in love and entirely pleased with each other and the life they were building together.

I've always enjoyed looking at photos anyway, but after I got home that night, I started thinking about the photos you see in expat homes, and how they differ from those you see when people are back in their own countries.  When you're overseas, the photos you have in your home seem to take on more meaning, somehow.
Family reunion and birthday celebration for MrL's mother on the occasion of her 70th birthday.

Not to say that photos don't mean a lot in the houses you visit back home.  But photos in an expat household take on more weight and more meaning, because most of us don't have many things from home with us to begin with.  That's understandable, of course:  most companies (ours included) put a limit on how much you can ship over, and one has to get ruthless in one's packing.

Naturally, a lot of us pick up objects de art once we arrive, which explains why the decor in all of our apartments here in Seoul looks vaguely familiar:  kimchi pots, wooden masks, Korean medicine chests. These items rub elbows with the generic landlord-provided furniture that you find in many expat apartments (not many of us bring furniture along, and those of us who do don't bring much), creating a predictable decor for most of us that I think of as 'Asian-Ikea-Hotel.'

For that reason, family photos seem to say a lot more over here simply because you see fewer of them.  Back home in the US, it's not unusual to see portrait-sized family photos hanging over fireplaces, galleries hanging on parlor walls and running up stairways.  And there are always (especially in the South) sterling-silver frames amassed on end tables, sideboards, nightstands, and bookshelves.  You can read family histories on people's walls and on their coffeetables.

It's a bit different if you're living in a foreign country, though.

No, not because we don't take photos (in fact, we probably take more than the average person, since everything is so unusual.)

And not because we don't love our families or want to display photos of our beautiful, brilliant, and marvelous children/nieces/grandchildren/friends.  Actually, we do.  But  expats have space and weight and packing limits that most people don't have to contend with.  So the images that do end up getting displayed - that 'make the cut,' so to speak - tend to be the really important ones.
Sons#1 and #2 with radiant bride, Auntie H.  
As an expat, even if you're lucky to have a generous moving allowance and weight limits (and that seems to be the exception rather than the rule), there's no guarantee that your photos will have anywhere to be.  You don't know how big or small your new home will be.  You don't know if your landlord will allow you to put hooks or nails in the wall. You may not have a nightstand or a sideboard for display purposes,and - even if you do - it may not be big enough to hold much.

So, you make your selections carefully.  You distill your life experiences, your family, and your friends into a few thoughtfully-chosen moments that you'll take along with you wherever you go.

You choose what's most important.  Who and what you most want to be reminded of.  The relationships and the experiences that define you and that remind you of what you care most about in the world.  The ones -when people do stop by - you can't wait to tell them about.
MrLogical and Korean cycling mates taking a breather.

The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is undeniably true.  But for expats,  the photos you see say even more than most.  These are not always professional photos;  they may be small and blurry and taken with camera phones. They may be taken in kitchens or in airports or in small back gardens, although - depending on the expat - you may glimpse more than one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the background.  From a professional standpoint, they may be lacking in color, composition, angle, and depth.

What they do all have in common is this:  they're too important, too precious, and too meaningful to be left behind.

They're the ones that make the cut.

Rare time with Mum back home last summer.  


Wilma said…
Interesting. Never really thought about that. We don't have many photos in our house either as we lost most of ours. Even though we got some of them back we still only have the same ones out that we had before. Oddly enough, they are the same ones that you speak of: my paternal grandmother, my maternal grandmother and me when I was 7 years, John's maternal grandfather holding his Aunt Laura, our wedding picture, Sean at about 3 months old, Sean's 1st birthday and Sean the week before he started kindergarten--the ones that were too precious to pack and chance losing. Also there is one of the 3 of us and one of Sean on our fridge. No photos out of our folks even though those didn't go missing. Can't look at those on a daily basis. Still miss them too much. :( Maybe people who live 3 people in a 625 sq. ft. apartment live similar to expats?
MsCaroline said…
Wilma, it could very well be, at least in the sense that you aren't bogged down with a lot of extra stuff you don't need. I was definitely comparing it to the houses I was used to seeing in the US, where the 'Hall of Horror' (eg, chronological progression of family and baby photos marching down the wall)was almost a foregone conclusion(we had one), and lots of my friends had large, beautiful professional canvas-type family photos hanging over fireplaces and such, as well as many others all over the house. Maybe that's why I notice their absence so much. Not saying that they all aren't special- I only have about 8 framed photos here in Seoul that are very important to me, and the decision-making process was not easy!Interestingly - I have a photo of me and my parents from the late 60s, but none of my dad after about 1990 - still makes me too sad.
Trish said…
A fascinating post, MsC. And how beautiful was your grandmother!
I do know a lot of people here who fill their walls with family photos, mostly portrait photos of their children for every school year and occasionally a rather large canvas wedding photo above the fireplace. It would be much nicer to see some old photos alongside these.
For me, walls are for paintings and photos look better in small frames on a chest of drawers or cabinet.
I wonder which ones would make the cut if I were an Expat? That's something for me to ponder.
BavarianSojourn said…
I loved this post Caroline. So very thought provoking. So very true! I come from a long line of photographers, yet some of my favourite pictures that come with us everywhere are the least professional! :)
MsCaroline said…
@Trish- thank you! Yes, the walls in many homes in the US are filled with photos as well - probably why the lack of them made such an impression on me and caught my attention. In our parlor (sitting room, whatever) back home, the entire wall was covered with old family photos from both families - we both love them, and I actually brought a few really special ones with us to Seoul, although I've nowhere to hang them (nails are frowned on by our landlord - ruins the wallpaper...sigh.) I had a very hard time choosing the ones to take along, but the few I brought bring an immediate smile to my face.
MsCaroline said…
Emma - Thank you! And,yes, I always say that my favorite photos seem to come from someone's phone! Of my favorite photos, very few have come from a professional photographer and very few have 'planned.'
I think you have it exactly: when the photos have to earn their keep you get the ones which really speak. When I worked away from home for a couple of years during the week I had an array of photos which I loved. Now they are all out of date - the children aren't teenagers any more and my husband doesn't have the black hair - they are in a drawer now, still in their frames. There doesn't seem much point in putting them up but I would hate to lose them. Love the cycling photo by the way!
Stacy said…
Our first three expat postings included only what we could take in our suitcases so the photos were small and precious. Now we are allowed a 40-foot high top container and have furniture and rugs and paintings, etc. But I swore early on that I would not have a house full of local knickknacks so I limit myself to one or two special items from each place we live. It makes me think and choose judiciously. My two most valued possessions, though, are a black and white professional portrait of our two girls when they were 16 and 18 and the acrylic portrait my elder daughter painted of her and her sister as MY surprise graduation present (when she graduated from Singapore American School) and went off to Rhode Island School of Design. When you know you have to cover and repaint all the holes in the walls when you leave, you make them count, so the photos are still few and precious.

Great post!

(Did you see my answer? YES to pecans!)
I loved this entry, C. Excellent prose, madam. Hope all is well in the East!
MsCaroline said…
Elizabeth - I love that phrase, 'earn their keep' - it's exactly how I feel about the ones I brought along! Most of the photos I have displayed are older, as well - they capture times and places and people in a combination that made me ineffably happy. That's definitely the sort of thing you need around you when you're 6,000 miles (96500 km) away from home!
MsCaroline said…
Stacy - We actually brought furniture with us (the company will move as much or as little as you want) but we didn't find an apartment until after we'd packed up our house in the US, so we went with only the most vital things - beds, for example (you know how hard Asian beds are!) and basic living room furniture(sofas in Asia- also hard!) - things we knew would fit in any apartment. We don't have any local souvenirs ourselves yet, except (oddly) maps and sketches - I have a weakness for old maps - that I've picked up along the way. I do have a standing agreement with MrL that we will buy a dol hareubang before we leave, because I MUST have one for my garden (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dol_hareubang) Other than that, most of the items out there are things we grew up with in our parents' houses and therefore not particularly exotic to us anymore!
Like you, I have one professional black-and-white portrait of my boys, but it's much older - they were 6 and 9 or something - so far nothing has topped it, so it stays. Of course, with two artistic children, your walls might look a little different than the average expat's - how fun that your daughter graduated from SAS - our neck of the woods and I think they compete with Seoul Foreign School in some of the APAC things. As far as holes go - we probably would have hung much more on the walls if we'd had drywall and/or paint on them, but Seoulites seem to be fans of wallpaper, and those holes are much more challenging to cover!
Oh, and re: the pecans: Yes, I saw your comment- of course pecans would be acceptable! ; ) I must have missed wherever you said it in the post. I can't even believe I asked, in retrospect, given the source and all! ; )
MsCaroline said…
DrA - Thanks! If I'd known you were reading, I would have thrown in a gratuitous phrase about dentistry in Seoul just for your benefit! MrL and I found a dentist here who seems competent (although he did mix up the words 'toothbrush' and 'toothpaste' when we were talking - not necessarily a good sign, US Dental school or not!)but it's definitely not home!
I've been reading from the start! I get the entries delivered by email as you publish them. Great, great work! You have a finely honed skill for story telling!

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