Dedication, Perseverance and the American Dream

by Sunny Panyanouvong-Rubeck

Charlotte, NC (USA)

Sunny is also a 2020 candidate for District Court Judge in Mecklenburg County. Follow her journey at Sunny for Judge.

I was just two years old, when I almost died. The voyage to America was full of sacrifices. First, my grandparents gifted a cow to my parents on their wedding day. This cow provided everything for our family. She produced milk. She ploughed. She diligently obeyed. When we didn’t have enough money to finance our journey to America, she surrendered her life while dad sobbed as he sold her flesh to a nearby slaughterhouse.

In 1980, my parents made the decision to leave my mother’s village in Paksan for America. My parents were leaving behind the only country they’ve ever known. Saying goodbye to brothers and sisters was bittersweet, for nobody spoke and yet everybody knew. This moment could very well be the last time they embraced. My parents grabbed little in terms of personal belongings, but held tightly to their children as we prepared to hide throughout the night.

When we finally reached the Mekong River, my crying grew louder while boarding the tiny wooden boat. My mom did not hesitate to sedate me as images of soldiers killing one another crossed her mind. She had not forgotten how the bombs would fall like raindrops on her roof. Nor could she erase the soldiers’ faces who came rushing into her village demanding refuge. To keep me from giving away our position to nearby communists soldiers, mom kept feeding me pill after pill, until I became silent. My aunt realized the dosage given to me was too much for a toddler. She grabbed my limp body, jumped into the Mekong River and submerged us both underneath the cold water to revive me. While back on the boat, the night skies illuminated her silhouette as she rocked, back and forth, back and forth, at the thought of losing life and hope. She clutched onto my little wet body, uncontrollably crying over the idea of being so close to reaching the border to freedom, when I began to cough. The idea of drowning still frightens me.

My family was fortunate to be part of the 32 migrants that departed on the 13th of July 1981 by Proflight 17242 to the United States for permanent resettlement. When a peaceful farm life in Laos was no longer possible, America welcomed us. We assimilated into Western culture, learned the new language and welcomed a new democracy. In America we were poor, but free. As a child, I lived in Section 8 housing, stood in the school cafeteria line for free lunches and survived through government programs. I still remember the feeling of having to pick eyeglasses from a special drawer reserved for children on Medicaid while living in Modesto, California.

I have always faithfully believed that education would change my life. When I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2002, my entire family graduated. When I graduated from law school in May of 2009 from North Carolina Central University School of Law, Lao people graduated. When I decided to run for District Court Judge in 2020, I know my entire community rises. I am running for District Court Judge because of my decade long experience, my qualification as an Assistant Public Defender, who supervises the Felony Drug Unit, and my dedication to hard work and passion for public service. I am also running for District Court Judge because in my decade long career as a practicing attorney with the Mecklenburg County Bar, I have never taken a case before an Asian-American judge. I understand identity politics is not popular, but at some point as our future heads into a new decade, we must come to realize that as Asian-Americans, we have not been represented.

My story, like so many refugees, is about dedication, perseverance and achieving the American dream. I have fought for and will continue to fight for those who, like my parents, are victims of wars they never entered. I believe my near death breathed a greater purpose into my life. The sole purpose of this great work is for the betterment of our entire community. This is our race. This is our time. Let’s step away from living in the shadows and instead, let’s begin to shine.