August 1, 2009

Mail-Order Bride

full article @ MSN

As a fashion blogger and the publicist for my husband Steve's new SoHo art gallery, I go to lots of dinner parties with the fashionistas, street artists and hip-hop musicians we know through our work. We'll all be talking, and someone will ask how Steve and I met. When I tell them that we found each other through an international marriage agency, they don't get it.

Most people never think of a 27-year-old career woman like me when they hear the words mail-order bride. They imagine someone who doesn't speak English, who's been shipped in, like property, to be subservient to her husband. "Are you allowed to go out on your own?" an acquaintance once asked me. Another person wanted to know whether I had a curfew -- seriously. If someone associates me with those kinds of stereotypes, Steve and I both get upset, because it's degrading. But I try not to take it too personally. I'm not ashamed. My husband and I love each other and have been married for six years, longer than many couples we know. Plus, immigrants usually have complicated stories -- and I'm certainly no exception.

My story starts where I grew up, in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, a smoggy factory city with a population of about one million. I was born Valeriya Sorokina, or Lera for short, and grew up in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with my mother, father and brother. My parents were doctors, but that doesn't make you rich in Ukraine. We lived on what was probably the equivalent of $5 a day. Every morning before I left for school, my parents would give me a quarter for bread and the bus, and it had to tide me over until dinnertime.

When I was eight years old, my country declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Those were turbulent economic times, much more frightening than a recession. No one had any money, and crime was rampant. Although I was young, I can remember armed guards standing outside grocery stores to protect them from looters, even though there was little left on the shelves but canned foods.

Growing up as a girl in Ukraine was especially difficult -- even today, men dominate society, and the same went for our household. My father was very traditional and wanted me to focus on becoming more "feminine" so I could attract a husband. But I was a tomboy. And I loved to read fiction -- Twain, Pushkin, Hemingway, Steinbeck, even sci-fi. I never wanted to blend in or have a simple life; I wanted mine to be complex and colorful, like a Nabokov novel. Given my circumstances, I could achieve that only by leaving home. So I studied hard and did well in school, and in 2000 I won a cultural exchange scholarship to spend my junior year at a college in upstate New York.

A Taste of American Life

My host family lived on a farm and had three children. Although the rural life wasn't for me, I got a thrilling taste of America. I was blown away by the diversity and freedom of speech: the many languages spoken, the zillions of American television shows, even trying salad for the first time after years of eating a Ukrainian diet, which is devoid of fresh vegetables. Before long, I knew that I wanted to become a U.S. citizen someday.

One of the first things I noticed about America was how people smiled so much, even at total strangers. Back home, everyone seemed to grimace at each other all the time. As clichéd as it might sound, we didn't smile a lot because life could be so hard. You had to look tough, intimidating, as if you were ready for war.

I also loved how in America women could achieve anything. That's just not possible in Ukraine, unless you come from money. In my country it's an accepted fact that even college-educated women get stuck in low-paying, low-level jobs. I pictured myself being a successful, professional woman living and working in America -- a classic rags-to-riches story. And I was making progress toward that goal: I did well, applied to renew my visa and landed a campus job to help me pay for my tuition for the following school year.

But I hit a roadblock when the U.S. government denied my student visa renewal. I had no choice but to return to Ukraine.

Back home I reenrolled in my old university, yet I struggled through classes because I was so depressed. I couldn't imagine getting serious with my then boyfriend, because I didn't think he had any life goals or an interest in leaving Ukraine, which seemed ridiculous to me. After my experience abroad, I could barely relate to him and the rest of my friends. I felt like a child who had been given a cookie, only to have it taken away after one bite. I'd experienced what it was like to be an American, but now that experience was just a nice memory.

Putting Myself on the Market

After talking to my parents, I found a possible solution: to advertise myself on an international marriage brokerage website. These agencies charge men, mostly from the United States and Western Europe, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to match them with a foreign bride, usually from poor or developing countries like Ukraine. In the States, it would be shocking for parents to accept that their 19-year-old daughter would do such a thing. But back home, finding a husband this way was just part of the culture, at least for those women who didn't come from a wealthy family, and I didn't know anyone who did. Many girls I grew up with were on the marriage hunt by the time they turned 18, and several had used brokers to meet Western men.

In Ukraine the potential dangers of the so-called mail-order bride industry are not as well known as they are in America. So I wasn't worried about my safety, although based on what I now know about brokered marriages, I should have been. I learned years later, only after moving here, about the many horror stories of foreign brides who had been abused by their American husbands. Today I get just how much of a gamble I took.

As a first step I rode a bus to an Internet café and, over the course of two afternoons, wrote a profile, much like crafting a regular online dating profile. Women who use marriage brokerage sites often post seductive photos of themselves posing in lingerie or bikinis that practically scream "Buy me!" but I couldn't do that. It just wasn't me. I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, feeling like an object to be attained at the right "price." I knew I had to stay strong and believe that if I ended up getting married, I wouldn't forget who I was.

My profile pictures were reserved; I didn't even have makeup on. I wrote that I wanted to meet someone who was open-minded and supportive of a career-driven woman. My mother didn't think I'd ever lure a husband this way, since I'd be competing against other girls who'd started preparing themselves at an early age to attract an American man by wearing makeup and tight clothes.

The online service I used had thousands of subscribers, but after browsing the site, I couldn't fathom sleeping with -- let alone marrying -- the vast majority of the American men. They weren't only physically unappealing (grandfatherly old, overweight); their profiles offended me. Most were blatant about wanting a stereotypical submissive wife. One guy said he was looking for a Ukrainian girl so that he "could be taken care of in the bedroom." Others sent one-line messages that just asked for my measurements. Disgusted, I'd think to myself, These guys have no shame.

After a few days of glum browsing, I came upon a profile of a music producer and art collector from New York City. Sporting dark sunglasses and hip clothing, this guy stood out. He seemed like someone out of a rock band. (Later, I found out that he once did play in a band.) I instantly sent him a message: "Hi, I am a college student from Ukraine. I am studying communications and taking English classes so that I can work in America. I have never used the Internet to meet people, but you look interesting -- and attractive, might I add. :) Were you in New York during 9/11 -- I was so shocked to hear the news. I will send pictures if you write back. Thanks, Valeriya." Almost immediately, I got this back from him: "I have a few years on you, girl.... You know that, right? What are the chances this could work long-term? I have been married before, and am looking for commitment. Steve." I replied: "Listen, I know it's silly, but I'm 100 percent serious...."

In the weeks after that exchange, we spent hours and hours chatting online. The highlight of my day was checking to see whether he'd replied to my last e-mail -- he always had. I worked so hard to impress him with my English vocabulary and American cultural references. (I didn't always succeed, however. Ricky Martin was the only Western singer who was "hot" in Ukraine then, but Steve sweetly informed me that he wasn't exactly the coolest musician in the States.) I guess I was surprised that I had actually found a guy who seemed cultured and witty. I liked that Steve had personality. And he seemed serious about wanting to find a wife. The more we communicated, the more eager I was to meet face-to-face.

About two months after our first e-mail exchange, Steve booked a flight to Ukraine. I met him at the airport in Kiev, the capital. I wore the only outfit I owned at the time that seemed suitable for a "date": an orange alpaca coat, a pencil skirt and boots. Taking the nine-hour train trip from my hometown to meet a stranger from another country felt bizarre. But when Steve walked up to me and we embraced, it felt right.

We went to a café and talked. At first I was anxious, as if it were a job interview. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. But as we spoke, my anxiety faded. Steve said I seemed like a New Yorker -- I took that as a compliment. Though we had 23 years between us, our age gap didn't bother me. Steve looks younger than he is, and is very stylish. He's also a great listener, and he asked me about everything, from my family to being a foreign exchange student to what it would be like if I left Ukraine.

I remember his nervously telling me that he had rented a hotel suite with an extra bed in the living room, just in case we didn't hit it off. I was grateful -- less pressure. But we were definitely attracted to each other, and the living room remained vacant for the whole weekend.

A month later we took two more romantic trips together, to Warsaw and Budapest, where we also had intimate talks about his divorce and his father's death. When we were each back home, Steve wrote in an e-mail: "Let's do this -- let's get married." Although it wasn't the most romantic marriage proposal ever, I knew it was genuine. Looking into his eyes when we were together, I could tell how wild he was for me; I felt an incredible sense of safety, warmth and affection with him. Plus, I was desperate to leave Ukraine. I immediately said yes.

My American Wedding

That was the easy part. What followed was seemingly endless, grueling paperwork and logistics as Steve spent five months dealing with the agency and the Ukrainian government. He had to get me a visa, which required him to take multiple trips to Kiev. Between the agency charges, visa fees, travel and other expenses, he ended up spending about $20,000. I'll admit that the amount made me uncomfortable. Part of it was guilt about how much the process cost him, because we still barely knew each other at that point, even though our love was budding. On a deeper level, I didn't want to feel "bought." Steve never made me feel that way; rather, he treated the money as part of the adventure we were on. And that helped me a great deal. We were in constant touch over e-mail, reassuring each other that what mattered most was getting me out of Ukraine soon and discovering a new life together in New York City.

My mother seemed shocked that I met a husband so quickly -- or at all, really -- but also relieved that I was about to be married. Years later I realized that even if she didn't show it, letting go of her only daughter at such a young age must have been hard for her.

Almost exactly a year after sending that first message to Steve, I packed all of my belongings into one small suitcase and flew, alone, to New York City. Landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport was overwhelming. Steve was waiting for me at arrivals, and seemed as nervous as I was, but he had that same loving expression I saw on the day we first met. The airport was crowded, and I felt dizzy. Not only was I finally in America, but because of U.S. visa requirements, I would be married quickly -- in two weeks.

We decided to keep our wedding simple and low-pressure with a civil ceremony at City Hall. Without a doubt, even though there wouldn't be a huge party, big white dress or flock of attendants, we both still had our own very unique brand of prewedding jitters, given our situation.

As we rode together in a taxi to his apartment, I stared out the window and admired all of the buildings, billboards and stores whizzing by. Steve's place was just as he'd described, with an Andy Warhol print and graphic street art decorating the walls. Although certainly not a huge space -- it's a New York City apartment, after all -- it was roomier than what I was used to back home.

I had packed only my jeans and a sweater, because the rest of my clothes weren't in good condition or fashionable by American standards, and Steve had assured me he would buy me some things to help me "fit in." So in my first days in America, I went clothes shopping in SoHo and Greenwich Village, my new neighborhood. I didn't get expensive, designer stuff, even though Steve offered to buy me whatever I wanted. I have pride and respect for myself, and I didn't want to get too comfortable with a lifestyle that I couldn't afford on my own dime. I couldn't ever be a trophy wife.

Two days after I arrived in New York, Steve and I were married in a ceremony that didn't last more than 10 minutes. It was just us and a close friend of Steve's, who stood as our witness. I wore a cute new top and pants, and Steve had jeans on. After the ceremony we went home and spent the day "honeymooning." We ate a romantic dinner at a swank Italian restaurant, and we talked and talked, about our quirks, desires, hang-ups, everything. Although we still had years to get to know each other, I was already very much in love with Steve.

Finally, a Citizen

A few days after the wedding, I wanted to start establishing myself, so I got a waitressing job at an upscale Russian restaurant near our apartment. I had no prior restaurant experience, and it showed. I was fired the next week. Soon, though, I met a well-known fashion designer who lived near me and whom I ended up assisting with public relations and styling. I immersed myself in the fashion industry by studying magazines and memorizing all of the big designer trends. Through that job, I made new friends and began to feel more situated. I was excited to be meeting people on my own.

As my English improved, I launched my blog, Fashion Addict Diary, which soon became more popular than I expected -- it eventually got about 10,000 hits a day. It was called "the best online read" by Elle magazine in the United Kingdom, and was covered by The New York Times' Fashion & Style section. This wasn't about Steve; it was all me -- and I relished that. I feel that my accomplishments, independent from Steve, have truly made me an American, although legally I didn't become a citizen until this year.

I also returned to school, at the City University of New York, and got my bachelor's degree. When I graduated, Steve was in the auditorium. We locked eyes and I felt so loved -- and in awe. Steve had been my emotional support through school. When I had to concentrate on my studies, I didn't have to worry "Am I being a good wife?" He always respected my decision to finish my degree, and never made me feel indebted to him for helping me with my tuition. It was just understood that this is what partners do.

My one regret is that I don't feel as close to my family as I want to be. I didn't see my mother for five years. Last November I flew to Russia, without Steve, and met her in Moscow. We bickered about little things, like the fact that I never learned to sew, and about bigger things, like the fact that I don't want children yet. But in my family, we rarely if ever speak about our feelings, so just sitting down and talking with my mother was a start. Although my childhood was not easy, I credit her for the strength and independence that I have in my adulthood. And while she never flat out said, "I am proud of you," I could tell my mother was amazed to see how well I was doing.

Sometimes, six years later, I still have to explain and defend my marriage to people who assume that I am unhappy or trapped. An American friend once teased me for being with an older man. She was always saying, "Lera, you would have so much fun dating in New York!" even though she was in a dysfunctional relationship with a man in his late twenties. I told her I wasn't envious of anyone's single life.

Maybe there will always be people who question the validity of our bond. To them, I say, "It's real, it's there! Till death do us part." I believe that it's not so much how you get married but what you make of your marriage that matters. Like most couples, we have overcome difficult times and have had our fair share of battles (about closet space, most recently!). And, yes, it can be stressful being so far from my family and adapting to a new culture. But I know Steve will always be there for me, and I hope he can say the same about me. I didn't expect to find love when I signed up with that agency, but I did. I feel very, very lucky.