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Meeting My Namesakes Taught Me That Being Unique is Overrated

Meeting My Namesakes Taught Me That Being Unique is Overrated

  • Culture
  • Life
Illustration by Lam Yik Chun.
In an age where personal branding is everything, a rose by any other name would, honestly, not smell as sweet. Online, our names are more than a string of letters. They are the most visible representation of your identity in a space where physical presence doesn’t manifest.

About five years ago, I developed a curious fascination with people who share my name when I discovered that the Instagram username I really wanted was taken.

In a mission to brand all my social media accounts as “graceyeoh”, I’d confidently typed @graceyeoh into the empty field and hit enter. I was on Instagram fairly early, so I thought I would get my choice. An error message immediately appeared: “This username isn’t available. Please try another.”

In my own bubble, I assumed my name was unique enough that I stood an unquestionable chance of claiming its corresponding username. Up until that day, I had known of no other Grace Yeohs.

As I gazed longingly upon a username that was not meant to be, I wondered who this Grace Yeoh was, whether she lived in Singapore, and what she was like. She had also, apparently, taken my desired username for Twitter.

How dare she.

Grace’s social media accounts were locked, but in one profile photo, she had on heavy stage makeup. In another, she wore shades. I assumed she was a performer.

And just two days ago, this same girl sat in front of me sipping on an iced matcha latte.

32-year-old Grace Yeoh doesn't finish her iced matcha latte, while I down my long black over the hour.
“Oh I actually wanted to get decaf, but they didn’t have it,” she says, after I point out that I love matcha too.

Grace Yeoh is 32 years old this year. Currently on maternity leave since giving birth a few months ago, she agrees to meet me after exchanging a few brief and guarded messages via Facebook messenger.

But any discomfort I sense vanishes in real life.

In person, it doesn’t take long for us to hit it off. It’s like speed dating, except better. I don’t feel as though I have to impress her or be someone I’m not. In fact, all this feels oddly surreal, as though I’m meeting someone who could be a distant relative. At the start, we know nothing about each other except our names, yet I already feel an instant, albeit subtle, connection.

It probably helps that the first half of our Chinese name is the same as well, making our full name three-quarters identical.

That said, I’m familiar with this peculiar sense of meeting a stranger who doesn’t feel like one. 32-year-old Grace is not the first of my namesakes I’ve met.

A month ago, I’d met another Grace Yeoh, who’s 28 this year. Unlike 32-year-old Grace, she’s more open over text but quieter in person.

After meeting the two of them, I realise the three of us share several superficial similarities. All our fathers are from Penang, and we graduated from the same faculty in the same university. We’re also introverts and take a while to warm up to each other, although I am admittedly the most outspoken by nature of my job.

Despite growing up four years apart in relatively different kinds of social circles, 32-year-old Grace and I share more in common. We possess both a sports and a modern and contemporary dance background. We also appreciate old school R&B and hip-hop music, though she admits to recently developing a love for song covers. (I’m indifferent to those.)

Coincidentally, we all admit to not having a best friend, although 32-year-old Grace is the only one who has extremely close female cliques.

Both Graces get excited when I ask them what they’re currently watching on Netflix. Turns out, they share my taste in pop culture and entertainment.

For 32-year-old Grace and I, political dramas, such as ‘Designated Survivor’ and ‘Blacklist’, rank high on our favourites, and we’re not huge fans of sitcoms. Similarly, 28-year-old Grace likes crime and mystery shows, such as ‘Elementary’ and ‘Alias Grace’.

On the personal front, we’re all pretty chill about settling down. No doubt anyone else could have reassured me I’m not weird for straying from the norm, but it’s a whole other kind of comfort when your namesakes feel exactly the same way.

32-year-old Grace candidly admits to relishing singlehood and always expected to settle down only when she was about 40 years old.

“Before meeting my husband, I was totally okay being alone. I loved the freedom. I really enjoyed pursuing dancing in my spare time so much that I didn’t have time to date. But of course now I’m experiencing a different kind of happiness,” she says.

Similarly, although 28-year-old Grace has been with her boyfriend for eight years and has applied for a BTO, they’re not in any rush to get married. It is simply “not [her] priority”.

Both Graces even momentarily forget their anniversary dates when I ask. This amuses me to no end, because it is an unlikely characteristic in women that I’d most likely be prone to as well.

And though all of us hold vastly different jobs from each other now, we were all public servants once upon a time.

I order a long black, while 28-year-old Grace Yeoh gets one of the Starbucks Christmas specials.
It’s strange listening to a complete stranger describe the intimate parts of her personality and have them match yours. Objectively speaking, it’s equally likely that I would have the same amount of things in common with any other number of female Singaporean Chinese millennials.

And in some way, ‘Grace Yeoh’ is just a name. On Google, without keywords, one Grace Yeoh is the same as any other. In addition, many would argue that we are the sum of our actions and our words, instead of a moniker that we respond to.

At the same time, we are indeed our names.

An article on The Atlantic that inspired this story explains, “A name is a necessary shorthand for referring to a person in all their complexity. When you speak a name, it’s infused with the qualities of the person you’re referring to, but it carries its own connotations, even if you don’t know the person. Just as you flavour your name, your name flavours you.”

Our names may simply act as an unconscious influence, but it’s still an influence we’ve experienced our whole lives. So even though each Grace Yeoh is her own person, and rarely do their lives overlap (except when this Rice writer decides they should), there’s no doubt that the one thing that makes us unique is also what ties us together.

After all, as the aforementioned article in The Atlantic says, “[Social media] can reduce us down to our names, it can create confusion, but as it squeezes all the [Grace Yeohs] through a funnel, it also creates a new and unique tie.”

Obviously I’m also aware that these girls, sweet and kind as they are, may have absolutely nothing important in common with me. For all I know, these similarities might be nothing more than mere projection on my part, in an attempt to find common ground and make the fact that we share identical names seem cooler than it is.

Yet staring across the table during both meetings with Grace and Grace, all I see are two women who trusted me enough to let me into their lives based on the strangest premise for a story. More than anything else, perhaps an inherent curiosity and faith in strangers is what we most have in common.

And I can’t shake the feeling that we are bound, however meaningfully, by a single and significant strand of similarity.

Extremely enthusiastic 28-year-old Grace Yeoh.
Just before 32-year-old Grace and I part ways, I tell her about my cai fan challenge earlier this month. She says, “You know what, I really like cai fan! Whenever I meet my sister, we’d always go eat cai fan. My husband doesn’t know what’s the big deal.”

She’s right, it’s not a big deal. But her declaration of love for cai fan really resonates with the side of me that’s just as practical.  

I think of a particular and crucial childhood moment, one that I’ve always loved but never really talked about because it would sound plain silly to anyone who doesn’t share my surname. And I decide that if anyone were to totally get this memory without judgement, it would be Grace Yeoh.

“When I was young, my dad always told me the actress Michelle Yeoh was my cousin,” I say.

“Eh, same!” she blurts out, even before I finish my sentence. “We kena tricked.”

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Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer