The incredible story of U.S. senator and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth. In EVERY DAY IS A GIFT, Tammy Duckworth takes readers through the amazing—and amazingly true—stories from her incomparable life. In Every Day Is a Gift, Tammy Duckworth takes readers through the amazing—and amazingly true—stories from her incomparable life. In November of 2004, an Iraqi RPG blew through the cockpit of Tammy Duckworth's U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter. The explosion, which destroyed her legs and mangled her right arm, was a turning point in her life. But as Duckworth shows in Every Day Is a Gift, that moment was just one in a lifetime of extraordinary turns. The biracial daughter of an American father and a Thai-Chinese mother...
Publisher: Twelve (March 30, 2021) Hardcover: 288 pages ISBN-10: 1538718502 ISBN-13: 978-1538718506 ASIN: B08N4L7FQN
Senator Tammy Duckworth is a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who has served as the junior United States Senator for Illinois since 2017. A proud Iraq War veteran and helicopter pilot, she represented Illinois’s 8th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017. Before election to office, she served as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2009-11) and Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (2006-09).
Tammy, you’re making the whole house shake!” My cousin stood in the main room of my aunt’s house in Bangkok, arms folded, laughing at me. “You’re stomping around like a big farang.”
I had heard that word throughout my childhood in Thailand, along with other dismissive comments Thai kids would make to mixed-race kids like me. Farang, derived from franc or francaise, is the catch-all term Thais use to refer to a white person. But coming out of my cousin’s mouth, it had a more pointed meaning of big, fat, clumsy… different. Born in 1968, the daughter of a six-foot-tall American dad and a five-foot-tall Thai Chinese mom, I was bigger than Thai girls my age — a fact my cousins teased me about every chance they got. Just walking through my aunt’s wooden house, my footsteps falling more heavily than those of other girls, was enough to provoke a “joke” about my size.
My Thai cousins made it clear that they felt superior to me in other ways too. They’d tell me to stay out of the sun or I’d get even more freckles, which Thais considered blemishes. Any kind of spots were judged against the traditional Asian ideal of porcelain skin: If you’re upper-class, you don’t work outside, so your skin stays smooth and unmarked by the sun. My smattering of freckles had nothing to do with working in the fields or anywhere else — I had them because my dad had them. But my cousins didn’t care about that. They just liked finding another thing they could tease me about.
And then there was this classic: “Your dad smells like cheese!” Traditional Thai cuisine doesn’t include cheese, and many Thais find the odor of it gag-inducing. When I was a kid, I did too. The first time my mom made me a cheeseburger, when I was about seven, I thought I was going to throw up. The smell of juicy burgers was completely overwhelmed by the sickening stench of gooey, slimy cheese. Even the texture was gross! As an adult, I did eventually develop a taste for cheese, and now good luck prying me away from a nice runny Camembert or a stinky Stilton. But as a kid who was self-conscious about being different, I felt embarrassed when my cousins would hold their noses and laugh about the way my dad supposedly smelled.
Being biracial in Thailand was complicated, especially in the 1970s, as the Vietnam War forever changed the calculus between Americans and Southeast Asians. Biracial children with farang fathers were looked down on as half children, and not just figuratively, as the word for “biracial” in Thai literally translates to “half child.” Yet at the same time, some mixed-race people were seen as more beautiful, the result of an internationalization of white standards of attractiveness that was just starting to take hold. Pale skin, fair hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose — all of these were seen as markers of beauty. Of course, I didn’t have any of those features myself. And neither did the many biracial kids whose fathers were Black U.S. servicemen, who unfortunately were treated even worse than those of us who had white fathers.
I was a mixture: I had a round face and an Asian nose, but double eyelids, sparing me the prospect of the now-ubiquitous double eyelid surgery. I also had dark brown, wavy hair rather than the glossy, straight black curtain my cousins had. Unlike theirs, my hair tended to frizz up in the humid tropical air. My mom would try to control it with braids and hair dips, until she finally just gave up and gave me short pixie haircuts instead.
I hated being teased and feeling different. But in other ways, I was very lucky. Unlike so many American men who fathered “half children” like me, my dad didn’t abandon my mom, my little brother Tom, and me to fend for ourselves. He stayed and made us a family.
My dad, Frank Duckworth, grew up in Winchester, Virginia, a small town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He never knew his father, Joseph Duckworth, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1929, just ten months after Frank was born. Suddenly left a widow at age eighteen, Frank’s mother, Winnie, moved in with her parents, in a home they also shared with her two unmarried aunts. So my dad grew up in a household of four women and his grandfather, all of them struggling to survive in the dark years of the Great Depression.
Winchester is famous for three things. It was the town that changed hands the most during the Civil War, switching back and forth multiple times between the Union and Confederate sides. It’s the hometown of country singer Patsy Cline, who was actually a classmate of my dad’s at John Handley High School. And it’s the self-proclaimed “Apple Capital” of the United States.
Surrounded by orchards, the town has celebrated the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival since 1924 with a big parade and the crowning of “Queen Shenandoah.” Frank’s mother and grandparents had no money, but like many of their Winchester neighbors, they had apple trees in their yard. So, during the Depression years, that was the one food the family always had plenty of. When my dad was hungry, which was often, they fed him every kind of apple product you can think of apple pie, apple crisp, apple butter, apple juice, apple cider. Apples saved Dad during his childhood, but he ended up hating them. And he wasn’t too keen on sticking around in the Apple Capital either, so at age fifteen he went to a local recruiter, lied about his age, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Marines trained my dad to become a commo guy, setting up and wiring communications equipment. According to him, he spent the last few months of World War II in Okinawa, where his job was to run from foxhole to foxhole with a roll of wire on his back, linking up battlefield telephone systems. I can’t confirm that he was actually there during the war, as what military paperwork we have of his doesn’t reflect that. Then again, that paperwork is full of so many mistakes and erasures, even his birthdate was recorded differently on different documents. The one thing we do know is that early in his military career, he suffered a gash in his right arm, leaving him with an eight-inch-long scar that cut across his tattoo of the USMC anchor, globe, and eagle. He was awarded a Purple Heart, and for the rest of his life, my mom says, he was jolted awake by nightmares of being back in action.
The way my dad told it, after about five years of service, he left the Marine Corps and joined an Army program that helped enlisted troops finish college and become officers. He went to the University of Alabama for a year, but then was involuntarily recalled back to active duty, given a commission, and trained to be a signal officer. The Army sent him to France, where he spent much of the 1950s installing telephone lines and switches as part of the effort to rebuild Europe after the war. In the 1960s, as the U.S. ramped up its military involvement in Vietnam, he received orders to northern Thailand, where thousands of U.S. troops were sent in support of Air Force squadrons flying missions into the war zone. And that’s where he fell in love — not only with my mother, but with life in Southeast Asia
My mom, Lamai, was in her midtwenties at the time and working in a souvenir shop she owned with her brother. Running a shop came naturally to them, as their parents had been shop-keepers in Chaozhou, China, in the early part of the twentieth century. But in the late 1930s, as Mao Tse-tung gained power, their parents feared that the rise of communism would lead to discrimination, or worse, for capitalists like them. So they sold their shop, converted their cash to gold, and set out for Thailand — by train, by foot, by boat, any way they could get there. When they left China, they had two children. One more would be born on the journey, and my mom, the youngest, was born in 1941 after the family finally made it to Thailand.
Mom and her family were among many thousands of Chinese who immigrated to Thailand as Mao consolidated his power. They were broke by the time they arrived, but grateful to be in a country that translates, in the Thai language, as “free land.” Although my mom is ethnically Chinese and her first language is Teochew, the dialect spoken in Chaozhou, not only does she think of herself as Thai, she has no desire to go to China — even for a visit. Once, when I asked if she wanted to see the Great Wall, she said, “Tammy, it is a wall of sorrow. There are bodies of slaves in the wall. Why would I want to visit that?” She and her family saw China as a place where those with power practiced brutality and those without it suffered, and they were glad to have escaped.
But tragedy followed her family to Thailand. When my mom was a toddler, her mother went to a nearby river to wash out Mom’s little chamber pot. The exact details are lost to time, but somehow she lost her balance, fell into the water, and drowned. Though my mom was just a child and obviously not at fault, the rest of the family blamed her for the death. From then on, her father and siblings mistreated her horribly. Her sisters beat her, and her father refused to pay for her schooling, so she found her way to cosmetology school. The only family member who wasn’t cruel to her was her brother — the one with whom, in adulthood, she would end up opening the shop in the 1960s.
My dad used to go into that shop and poke around, looking at all the sundries and souvenirs. But he wasn’t really interested in what Mom was selling; he was just interested in Mom. He would follow her around, chatting her up and trying to get her attention, but she apparently liked some other American serviceman who also used to come around. There were thousands of them in northern Thailand in the 1960s, sent there as part of the war effort — young American men, very far from home, chasing, dating, and impregnating Thai women. My mom was wary of getting involved with a Soldier, though, knowing that most of them would leave at the end of their tours of service and never return.
She didn’t know at first that my dad was a Soldier, because he never wore a uniform into her shop. At the time, he was serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, but his main job was working as a federal civilian employee of the Department of the Army. He told her he was a Soldier only after they started dating, and when she balked, he promised that he’d take care of not just her but her family too. That’s how he won her over.
My mom agreed to marry him. The only problem was, my dad was already married.
I don’t know much about his first wife, but he had three kids with her—two daughters they had together, and a stepdaughter from his wife’s previous marriage. From what I could tell, when my dad fell in love with my mom, he simply decided he was done with that family. He flew home from Thailand to get divorced, Asia, they often ended up mired in poverty, lucky if they could find work as exotic decorations at restaurants, nightclubs, and strip joints. Sometimes strangers would offer young mothers money to “adopt” their “half children.” Very few of these adoptions were aboveboard, and many such children were sold into a life of servitude. The worst outcomes were of countless children being sold into Southeast Asia’s notorious sex trade and forced into sexual slavery.
One afternoon when I was less than a year old, my mom took me with her on a water taxi down the Chao Phraya River, which runs through central Bangkok. A man on the boat looked down at me and smiled. Then he turned to my mom and said, “She’s so cute.” My mom nodded, taking note of his expensive clothes, his southern Thai accent, and the fact that he appeared to be shaking. Suddenly the man blurted, “Twenty-five thousand baht!” He was offering to buy me, for the equivalent of about $1,200. He obvi-ously thought she was raising me alone, probably desperate, and maybe even a prostitute. My mom reacted instantly and viscerally. “No!” she yelled, hugging me tightly and moving away from the man. “I’m not going to sell my baby!” She had a husband, and I had a father—but so many others did not, and sadly, men such as this one would have no trouble finding other young mothers and children to exploit.
For many such children, the wounds inflicted by their abandonment never healed. To this day, men and women my age con-tact my Senate office from Thailand, asking for help in finding long-lost fathers. People send me heartbreaking emails saying little more than “Can you help me find my father? His name was Sam. He was a Sergeant in the Army.” Sometimes they’ll have a piece of a uniform, or a long-abandoned Army footlocker, or an old black-and-white photo of a fresh-faced young American man posing with a smiling teenage Thai girl. It’s heart-wrenching to have to tell them, “I’m sorry, but there were thousands of Sams like your father.” I try to help when I can, but there are too many stories, too many children left behind, and too few answers to the questions that have burned in these people’s souls for more than five decades.
Looking back now, I understand how desperate our situation would have been if my dad hadn’t returned. My mom would have been young, abandoned with two Amerasian kids and no job, living at the mercy of her judgmental siblings. How long would it have been before we were out on the streets? I almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to finish school, instead having to go to work in a factory or as a maid. I know my mom; she’s tough. She wouldn’t have abandoned Tom and me. But there would have been no other obvious path but to repeat her own early life in poverty with her two “half children.”
Even as a child, I knew that without my dad, we had no future. And that scared me enough that when my aunt began berating my mom, I lashed out at her—which is not what little Asian kids do.
“He is coming back!” I yelled. “And you shouldn’t talk about him like that. He paid for half the stuff in your house!” My aunt, infuriated that a child would dare speak to her like that, responded with a backhand to my face. She slapped me into submission while my mom stood by silently.
Mom didn’t step in to pull me away from the beating; having been beaten all her life by this same sister, she knew that resisting would only prolong it. But after it was over, she pulled me close. “Don’t do that again, Tammy,” she said. She told me there was nothing she could do if my aunt hit me, because we were dependent on her for the roof over our heads. I was stung by the humiliation of feeling so powerless, but I could tell that my mom was grateful I had stood up for her. I also knew that I would never, ever let myself get into a situation where I had to stand by and watch someone innocent being beaten. I would act, even if it wasn’t the smartest thing for self-preservation.
That was a long year for all of us, but at the end of it my dad did come back, just as he’d promised. He loved my mom, my brother, and me—but we weren’t the only reason he returned. As I would come to understand later, my dad also loved the version of himself that he could be in Thailand.
In the States, Frank Duckworth would forever be just another regular joe, a lower-middle-class guy eking out a paycheck in some American town. But in Asia, he was a strapping, six-foot, two-hundred-pound man who towered over most other men. And as discriminatory as Thai culture could be, there was respect for Americans. My dad had a wallet full of U.S. dollars and a Yankee swagger, and he loved feeling like the big man when he was in Thailand.
As the Vietnam War began drawing to a close, most of the American servicemen in Southeast Asia couldn’t wait to get the hell out. But Dad sought out jobs that would keep him in the region, first in Thailand and then in other countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore. He didn’t make as much money as he would have in the States, but the salary he got overseas as a foreigner was more than what locals made—another reason he felt like a big man.