Commentary: Restricted Validity Passport

I came as somewhat of a surprise to my parents — eight years after their last son, and at the end of their twenty five years spent as expatriates. In my first passport picture, obtained from the South African embassy in Singapore, I am just over a week old, being propped up by a hand while still half asleep. Right off the bat, I learned how to be a foreigner.

Whenever my two brothers are asked where they are from, their answers turn into a story: “I’m not too sure! I’ve lived in New York, Korea, Poland, South Africa…” Generally, they are stopped before they can finish the list. Though the narrative goes that they “don’t know where they’re from,” they fall luckily into a very accepting and worldwide community of internationally-schooled kids who have lived with expat parents in various places for their whole lives. My brothers’ accent are not exactly British, American, nor South African, but distinctly recognisable wherever they go as being from international schools. Despite trying, I have not been able to connect with their narratives.

My mother travelled from Indonesia, where the rest of my family was living at the time, to Singapore in search of better medical care for my arrival. I spent three years in Indonesia before my family moved to England, where my remembered childhood begins. Among these memories is the day I received my citizenship. It didn’t take me long, however, to realise that even standing in front of a photo of Queen Elizabeth, new passport in hand, pledging my nationality at six years old, that it takes more than a passport for a country to accept you as their own.

While my brothers identified with the international community, I felt distinctly British. Yet, in England, I have never been taken as such. My passport has never been enough to answer questions of “How can you be British if your parents are South African?” or “Why weren’t you born here?” or “Where are you really from?” The rejection I faced from my “truly” British friends prompted a search for my national identity. I was certainly not Singaporean nor Indonesian, and despite my first passport, I didn’t feel South African like my parents. In fact, when I go back now, much of my extended family considers me to be an American, even though the only thing tying me to the United States is a four-year F1 visa.

Unlike my brothers, I knew where I was from. To be told that not only was my passport not enough to be British, but also that the way I felt and identified was in some way invalid or false left me feeling confused and out of place. The xenophobic attitude that I saw so often among my peers was perhaps illustrated by Brexit and the feelings of some of the public that came to light. When I hear people say that “foreigners are coming over and taking our jobs,” I realise that my parents fall into that category — that in their eyes, we will never be British.

The first time I have ever called myself British and not been pushed for a “real” answer was at Andover. I was immediately thankful for a place that celebrated diversity in all its forms, namely for me, international diversity. Here, when I tell people I was born in Singapore or that my parents and brothers hold different passports to me, it doesn’t make me less British in the way that it does back home. Rather, the added perspectives that I bring add to my identity instead of detract from it, and I am thankful to Andover for this celebration. My national identity is multidimensional — I am British, but I have found homes in different corners of the world, and they are a part of me, too.

Sophia Gilmour is a three year Upper from Teddington, England and an Eighth Page Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at