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July 28, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Multiple choice questions for multicultural children

Mie at her graduate school commencement

June 13, 1996

“Mama, have I ever served in the Armed Forces of the United States?”

That was my daughter Mie trying to be funny.

It was the end of the winter holidays and we’d been sitting around the dining room table while she filled out her college applications. She’d spent the better part of the vacation doing this, and I think she was starting to lose her mind.

My husband and I also had what appeared to be endless forms to fill out related to the college application process. One form was 10 pages long and very comprehensive. It seemed they wanted to know everything about us, and it seemed they had thought of every possible question.

But because some of the facts about our family are out of the ordinary — starting with the simple fact that although we are American none of our four children were born in the United States and we do not live there — we had to attach several pages to this already extensive form.

There were many questions that had multiple choice answers, and just like any multiple choice tests, sometimes the answers you’d like to give would be a just a little bit different than the choices you’re given.

Questionnaires, especially, tend to ask people to answer questions that most people would not pose in the first place.

I remember a friend telling me about a questionnaire that was passed out at her daughter’s school. Each child was given two copies so they could have a reply from each parent. My friend and her husband sat at their dining room table (it seems to be the place to get these things done) filling out their questionnaires together.

Among the many questions was this one:  Which do you rate first in order of importance? 1) spouse 2) work 3) children 4) hobbies 5) family and household.

Simple enough. But when my friend came to that question she stopped writing, looked up and said, “Kazuo, what are you putting for number one?”

They decided, wisely it would seem, to agree on the order of their answers. Their intercultural marriage already had enough challenges, she reasoned, without introducing more. She said she could not find even one good reason to let a meaningless questionnaire sow the seeds of a problem they were not having.

(She did, however, reflect on the wives and husbands, bicultural or not, who filled out their questionnaires separately. It takes little to imagine some of the arguments that might result or the ill feeling that could develop from that particular question.)

Questionnaires from scholars and researchers studying bilingual and multilingual famiies have been arriving at our home almost as frequently as unrequested mail-order catalogs. These questionnaires appear to be exhaustive in the questions they postulate, but I’ve yet to see one of these surveys really explore the many possible scenarios that might exist in families where two or more languages are used regularly.

There are always a few questions related to culture, and these too are put forth as though they’re supposed to answer all inquiry on the subject. But I find few of the choices in the multiple choice answers come even close to describing my tricultural children.

Just recently it was reported in the newspaper that at a conference of the American Association of Public Opinion and Research held in Atlanta, a representative for the U.S. federal government said it has been “struggling” for several years with criticism of the way it asks people about their “race and ethnic background”.

Apparently some couples in so-called interracial marriages, as well as some others, took umbrage at the fact that many official forms have no appropriate category for “mixed race” children.

I remember on Mie’s college application that she was instructed to “Check the box that best describes you: Black, White, Asian, Other.”

She checked them all.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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