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Mitt's muffin-top-gate

National View

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Some supporters of Mitt Romney, in an effort to make him seem more human (or at least humanoid), have been disseminating a story, first told by a biographer, about how their candidate has a charmingly eccentric habit: He eats only the tops of muffins. His theory is that during the baking process, the butter sinks to the bottom. This story conveys so many things: Our guy is an everyday Joe — he eats muffins, not crumpets. And look, even his breakfast is an opportunity to make disciplined decisions — just think how he'll do with the budget.

The Romney campaign clearly hasn't thought about how this anecdote will play to a crucial voting bloc: Asian immigrants.

My parents came here from Korea after the Korean War. My father arrived on a cargo ship with $200 in his pocket. From those humble beginnings, he established a flourishing medical practice, one that sent four children to college and let him achieve one of the highest marks of Korean immigrant distinction: the purchasing of a Burberry scarf.

Like many Korean immigrants of his generation (and many immigrants in general), he was drawn to the Republican Party. For one thing, the platform is easy to understand: Taxes are bad. Republicans also seem more patriotic. They want to ban burning the American flag, while the Democrats engage in confusing, peevish debates about whether flag-burning is free speech.

For more than 40 years, my parents maintained their unshakable loyalty, even while living in Minnesota, the only state with the distinction of voting for a Democrat in every presidential election after 1972, and despite the Republicans' rising anti-immigration fervor — which was aimed, I pointed out, right at them. After all, they were, for a time in the 1960s, undocumented aliens, and it was our Democratic members of Congress who stayed their deportation.

But I knew better than to argue with my parents. My father passed on a few years ago, but the recent Republican convention seemed custom-made for him: Romney's chiseled, MacArthuresque look, his Harvard creds and blond wife, a Burberry love of all things Anglo-Saxon and, possibly most appealing, the easy-to-understand if not-quite-truthful theme of "We built it."

That, of course, is the immigrant story in a nutshell.

So why did Mitt Romney have to go ruin it with the muffin tops?

My father's story, like many immigrants', is one of hardship. He survived famine conditions during the Korean War and never let that experience stray too far from his consciousness. Our cabinets were comically, cornucopically stuffed: every bag of free peanuts from the airlines, the logos changing with the mergers (Northwest Orient, Republic Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Delta), those doll-size paper tubes of salt and pepper that came free with my father's lunch in the physicians' dining room, saltines and oyster crackers and pharma-company-sponsored bags of potato chips.

During the Korean War, when everyone was hungry, he told me, Koreans would take garbage and boil it to make a kind of stew. Of course that seems disgusting, he said. But it was better than going hungry. Despite being a physician, he happily ate foods tipping into rancidity. He drank sour milk. He reheated coffee. He once bought some Sheba Tender Terrine with Turkey and Chicken dinners, impressed by their cheapness, and would not be dissuaded from finishing his supply when we informed him with horror that it was cat food.

Once, during a vacation, we forgot to refrigerate the doggie bag from dinner, and it sat in the warm hotel room overnight. Someone's move to place the funky bag in the garbage the next morning set off my father's immigrant mentality inner-motion detector. He wouldn't listen to our pleading — we were sure he'd be dead of ptomaine poisoning by noon — as he ingested the entire contents of the carton. Annoyed, he chided us kids for our snobbish tastes, called us wasteful.

I can only imagine what he would have had to say about a presidential candidate so heedless he eats only the top off a muffin. No matter how loyal a Republican, my father would likely have declared Romney a very silly, profligate man — not the kind of man to be trusted with his precious tax money. Perhaps his vote would have gone to a Democrat for the first time ever. Politico has declared the Asian-American vote "key for both parties." Will muffin-top-gate cause other immigrant parents to join their Democratic-leaning children?

On the other hand, there is one part of Mitt Romney's story that would appeal to my father (besides the fact that both chose their names: Mitt using his middle name instead of Willard, my father deciding William had a nicer ring than Chae-sik).

My father always found the American culture of pets — with special food (not to mention a special doctor) just for the dog — preposterous. Our childhood longing for a pet bedeviled him. It's possible he might have been one with the logic of Romney's executive decision to strap the family dog, in a crate, to the roof of the car, thereby keeping the luggage clean and safe inside. In the pet department at least, my father would have thought the man had his priorities straight.

Perhaps he would have forgiven him the muffin tops, after all.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches writing at Columbia University and is working on a novel about the future of medicine. This piece originally ran in the New York Times.

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