By Kelley Carlson
At age 25, Martin Pieronek is living the American Dream. The Torrey Pines High School graduate holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering, and he recently landed a job in Texas that involves the marketing of process simulation software products. But the road to success involved some obstacles for the native of Vietnam.
Helping Martin navigate the path were Carmel Valley residents Cindy and Jim Pieronek and their son, Chris.
In the mid-1990s, the Pieroneks, unable to have additional children, considered adopting a young child through agencies connected with their congregation, the San Diego Church of Christ.
“We were in limbo,” Cindy Pieronek said.
Around this time, a friend of theirs from church was traveling back and forth from Vietnam, in the process of adopting a baby girl from a family living on the street. The friend informed the Pieroneks that while she was in Vietnam, she met a nice, young boy whose 72-year-old adoptive mother, Tuyet, was seeking better opportunities for him in America. Tuyet had broken her hip, and she was concerned that she couldn’t care for the energetic Martin — known then as Hong An — who was 11 years old, according to Cindy Pieronek.
“I thought: ‘Older child? Are you nuts?! This wasn’t what we were thinking!’ ” Pieronek said, who was dealing with 7-year-old Chris’ ADD (attention deficit disorder) issues.
Martin had been with Tuyet since he was an infant; he had been given up by his birth mother several days after his arrival into the world. During her pregnancy, his mother had to be sequestered and protected to ensure Martin’s safety in Communist-run Vietnam, Pieronek said.
“It was culturally not sanctioned” to be pregnant out of wedlock, she added.
Fortunately for Martin and his birth mother, they had the assistance of Catholic nuns working in a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
“The Catholic nuns did their best to take children off the street and care for them,” Pieronek said. They bought the homeless children books, clothes and uniforms, so they appeared similar to those who were paying for school. The nuns also fed the children and taught them how to read and write, Pieronek added.
The nun who aided Martin’s birth mother initially took Martin into her home, but it was her sister Tuyet — a career nurse — who adopted the baby boy and lovingly raised him as her own.
“Martin had a beautiful, wonderful extended family,” Pieronek said. “He never knew he was adopted until later on.”
When the opportunity arose for the Pieroneks to adopt Martin, the timing appeared to be a concern. The family had recently moved to Carmel Valley from Albuquerque, N.M., after Jim accepted a job offer at Qualcomm.
“At the time, we were financially strapped,” Cindy Pieronek said. “I said to my friend, ‘We’ll pray about it and see what happens.’ ”
The cost of the adoption was estimated to be $15,000 to $20,000. The Pieroneks prayed, and they received plenty of advice from close church friends. As soon as they started doing that, the money started coming out of nowhere, Cindy Pieronek said. Jim received a bonus from work, and Cindy landed a job as a technical writer for a biotech company.
“God provided money, resources and help,” Cindy Pieronek said.
The Pieroneks then began what became a two-year private adoption process. In Vietnam, they received assistance through a businesswoman whom they were introduced to by their church friend. The businesswoman’s own father had been killed by the Viet Cong and was an orphan, and she was sympathetic to the cause. Her uncle was Dr. Nguyen Xuan Oanh, former prime minister of South Vietnam, who was serving as economic adviser at the time of this process and whose help would prove to be the key.
In January 1998, the Pieroneks flew to Vietnam to meet Tuyet and Martin.
Martin’s first impression of Cindy — which he revealed to her later — was that he was scared of her.
“Unlike the Vietnamese women at the time, I wore makeup and bright eyeshadow,” Cindy Pieronek said. “My hair was blond, short and spiked up; to him (and others in Vietnam), I looked like I came from the moon.
“We instantly developed a great relationship with Tuyet, his mother, and she liked us right away.
“We could see how Martin was doted upon,” Pieronek said. “He was the crowning centerpiece of that family. He would go from house to house (many family members lived close by) and get fed all day long.”
Pieronek noted that Martin had no father, since Tuyet never married.
“The older cousins took on the role of being father figures,” she explained. “Extended families are so important in Vietnam.”
While in the country, the Pieroneks also met Martin’s relatives.
“No one spoke English, but it was OK,” Cindy Pieronek said. “We went sightseeing together, ate together, and they were very kind to us.”
After a successful visit, the adoption process continued — the businesswoman continued her behind-the-scenes work in Vietnam, while in the U.S., the Pieroneks went through home studies, in which social workers make sure a home is appropriate and safe for an adoptee.
But before the adoption was finalized, the paperwork suddenly “disappeared,” and a Vietnamese government agency reviewing the case asked for money in order to “continue” processing, Cindy Pieronek said.
“We were worried we’d have to start over again,” she said. “We prayed and prayed. And God intervened.”
Jim Pieronek made a return trip to Vietnam and met with Oanh. Together, they went to the office where the paperwork was hung up.
“It was like walking with President Clinton — everyone stepped aside,” Cindy Pieronek said.
Oanh found the office’s director, who apologized profusely, and the paperwork’s processing continued without further incident.
But there was another factor creating problems in Martin’s situation — there was no paperwork or protocol for a second adoption within Vietnamese law.
According to Pieronek, Oanh took the issue to People’s Committee — equivalent to the U.S. Congress — and got a bill written to get Martin out of the country.
He made it out “under the wire,” Pieronek said — the U.S. consulate was slated to be closed for three weeks in Ho Chi Minh City, and the last day it was open, Martin was processed. The Pieroneks flew to Bangkok, where the processing was completed, and took him home. It was the summer of 1999, and Martin was now 13 years old.
Living in the United States was an adjustment for Martin, who didn’t know any English. Cindy Pieronek said that for a long time, she was unaware that he cried himself to sleep often during his first year.
But the Pieroneks encouraged Martin to maintain his ties to his Vietnamese family.
“Even after he was adopted by us, he would call and talk to his mom Tuyet and relatives,” Pieronek said.
And during the summers, Martin would fly to Vietnam and stay with them for about a month.
“He had a real love for Tuyet, who raised him,” Pieronek said. “It was important for him to stay close with his Vietnamese adoptive mother and maintain his culture and language.”
The Pieroneks also encouraged Martin (Hong An) to choose an American name so he could more easily relate with other kids. The boy had grown up with Buddhist and Catholic beliefs, and when he was baptized in the Catholic Church, the ceremony was performed under St. Martin.
Along with the language barrier, Martin had a difficult time with traveling and often got motion sickness — cars and airplanes were not his primary mode of transportation in Vietnam.
Cindy Pieronek added that Martin and 9-year-old Chris got along well together, often playing video games and having fun with their two cats.
To further adjust to living in the United States and to help him catch up on his English, the Pieroneks had Martin repeat seventh grade at Carmel Valley Middle School and take English as a Second Language for a short amount of time. Martin caught on quickly, and went on to take honors English, Spanish and four years of Japanese when he attended Torrey Pines High School.
After graduating from Torrey Pines, Martin went to UCLA and received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2008. But the recession hit, and jobs in the field were few. Martin found work at a Radio Shack near his home and was top in cell phone sales, Cindy Pieronek said.
“He has a natural ability with people and business,” she added.
Wanting to pursue more in his career, Martin went back to school in August 2010, and received his master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Florida this spring.
Now with a company in Texas, where he is teaching clients how to use their software products, Martin will be periodically traveling to Asia for work.
“We’re really proud of him,” Pieronek said. “We talk with him just about every other day. And he still stays in communication with his family back home (in Vietnam).”
She added that Martin finally met both of his birth parents, which occurred in the last few years. Tuyet died about two years ago, Pieronek said, which was hard for Martin.
“When he thinks of Mom, that’s who he thinks of,” Pieronek said.
She hopes the tale of Martin’s adoption will be an inspiration to others.
“My goal is that by sharing our story, I will show how God moved to make this a reality for one native son of Vietnam and encourage others to consider adopting children and older ones at that, not just babies,” she said. “Martin has been a great blessing to our family, and we will forever be entwined with Vietnam and its people.”