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Adoption Blog: Be Bold or Go Home

The Sanjaya Problem
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I have to confess—while flipping channels earlier this summer, I paused on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Finding Lou Diamond Phillips slumming on a reality show was depressing, but I was truly disappointed to see Sanjaya, former crazy-haired contestant on American Idol, back in the spotlight.

Let me explain.

I have three adopted children. The oldest came from India at age 5; the younger ones were 2 and 3 when we they came home from Ethiopia. John and I never considered changing the kids’ names. Those beautiful names belonged to them, and their identities were already formed. We knew we’d have to help people learn to pronounce their names (heck, we’d had trouble at first), but we never anticipated the Sanjaya problem.

It all started a few weeks after our oldest arrived home. A group of parents was hanging out in the Pre-K classroom after drop off, chatting. Actually, others were chatting; I was hovering, anxious because my new little girl couldn’t speak English. Suddenly, I overheard one of the dads tell his daughter to “pass Sanjaya the scissors.”  He was obviously referring to my girl. She was the only child of color in the room, the only one bearing an ethnic name.

The man realized his gaffe a split second too late and gasped with embarrassment. All the adults froze.

“You’ve been watching too much TV,” I said, and everybody laughed with relief.

The guy apologized profusely. I accepted. At that point Sanjaya, Idol’s first Indian-American finalist, was the guy everyone was talking about, so I could sort of understand. But still: how do you confuse a tiny preschool girl in a pixie haircut with a gangly teenage boy wearing a spiky faux-hawk? I’m calling my oldest “Didi” here instead of using her real name, so you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that although her Indian name, like Sanjaya’s, comes from the Sanskrit, the names sound nothing alike. The whole incident felt weird, but I figured it would never happen again, right?

Wrong. The following school year, a kindergarten classmate’s parent called Didi Sanjaya. Even more shockingly, yet another mom called my Ethiopian son Sanjaya. Multiple times. Even after I corrected her! And guess what? My youngest daughter, possessor of a beautiful Ethiopian name, has had a parent refer to her as Sanjaya, too.

Sanjaya himself seems like a nice enough kid, but you can see why I’d like his 15 minutes to be up.

Although we live in fairly diverse community, I’ve come to realize that our multicultural family constitutes something truly new, and possibly disquieting, for a select few of the adults we meet, folks who’ve perhaps gotten to know people who are “different” from them most intimately through television. I’ve also realized I need to keep my sense of humor or I’ll go crazy. Thankfully, the Sanjaya problem seems to only afflict adults. Small friends and classmates manage the kids’ names just fine.

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Meet the Author

Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
Ethiopia, India

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