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Analysis & Opinion
21.05.12 Finding Love In Online Places
By Randianne Leyshon

Valentina was assigned the number 1355, an identification number she was given after joining a “mail-order bride” agency in her hometown of Kharkov, Ukraine. In 2002, Valentina, a widow of 18 years and a mother of two teenage girls, thought: “I like odd numbers. It was lucky. Who knows? Life is life.”

“My first feeling was, I like to communicate with a lot of people,” Valentina said, her eyes and lips lined perfectly with make-up. “I’ll start learning English, improve my English and meet a friend, and if something happens, God willing, I will meet someone I like and who likes me with my two daughters. I will be lucky.”

Valentina did not enter the international dating scene with high expectations, but within weeks she received her first letter of interest. Guy Dominique, a French-American, liked math, and at first didn’t seem very romantic to Valentina. “But he wrote, and I was so appreciative,” she said. It was Christmas time and Valentina was busy working in retail, so she only replied with a short “thank you” note.

Unfavorable Odds

Valentina is one of Ukraine’s 45.7 million citizens, of which there are 3.6 million more women than men. The number of females is approximately equal to the entire population of Oregon. Women in Ukraine live on average 12.5 years longer than men, creating an additional disparity. According to Valerie Chittenden, the author of an online case study, “Russian Mail Order Bride,” there are over 600 agencies on the Internet offering matchmaking services in former Soviet countries, and over 25,000 women from this area apply to these International Marriage Organizations (IMOs) annually.

Valentina, who smiled and laughed easily, admitted she was nervous about the prospect of moving to another country for marriage. “I heard many stories about women who went to different countries and they sort of became prostitutes or something,” she said, her auburn hair brushing against her robin egg-blue tracksuit. “And I was scared. I was scared of this stuff and I had two daughters, and it was a really difficult decision.”

Widowed at 24 when her husband died in a car accident, Valentina dedicated the next two decades of her life to raising her girls and working to support her family. “I was busy all the time and wasn’t thinking ‘Oh, I’m poor, because I’m not married.’ I had my first husband, a good person, the father of my kids, and I was okay with this.”

But her interest was piqued when her friends began talking about multicultural marriages. Valentina heard that meeting an American man would be different than meeting a Ukrainian. Christine Chun writes in her article, “The Mail Order Bride Industry,” that women from the former Soviet Union are attracted to American men because of the image of Western masculinity they see projected in books and movies, while those images don’t necessarily reflect reality. It is a commonly propagated myth that American men make better husbands than local men. According to Valentina, in Ukraine, “You cannot actually meet a normal person, with two kids and with my age. All our men like to have one woman and another woman, with no problems!”

Like a Normal Relationship

After the holidays, Valentina had more time to write to the math whiz. The pair corresponded through an online agency called Confidential Connections, having to pay for every email sent and received. Guy (pronounced like “key,” but with a “G”) said they were fortunate because they managed to exchange phone numbers, information that marriage agencies try to censor from messages in order to retain their clientele. With phone numbers in hand, Guy and Valentina ditched the agency and used one of Guy’s coworkers, Olga, to translate for them.

As 2003 began, so did Guy and Valentina’s long-distance relationship, which stretched over 10,000 miles. They would talk to each other at least once a week by phone with Olga’s help. “Can we try to speak directly? Because I don’t want to tell Olga ‘Okay, I kiss you,’ or something,” Valentina eventually asked Guy.

Sitting in the kitchen of their Eugene, Oregon duplex, Valentina and Guy now insist that their courtship was a normal one, not so different from the way one meets their spouse or the way one’s mother met their father. Having talked on the phone and exchanged emails for two months, Guy took a month-long leave from work and flew to Ukraine. “Guy was very honest. He told me if we like each other, good if not, we can be friends. I was so happy with this, no pressure,” Valentina recounted. In March 2003, Guy arrived in Ukraine. He stayed with Valentina in her flat and explored Kharkov while she worked her day job. “It was very much like normal life,” said Valentina. “Like a normal relationship.”

“Strangely enough, the communication we had went relatively well. We used dictionaries to communicate but we didn’t have a translator,” Guy recalled. On April 3, 2003, Valentina accepted Guy’s marriage proposal. She was not deterred by the fact that Guy was not yet divorced. “I wasn’t worried. He was separated and I believed him,” she said.

The Piggy Bank Is Empty Now

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) requires at least one meeting between an American man and a foreign woman to satisfy the requirements for a fiancee visa. Most IMOs host “romance tours” for a considerable sum (ranging from $3,000 to $5,000), which cover plane tickets, visas and accommodations, and set up social events and introductions between interested parties. To avoid having to pay extra, Guy planned his three trips to Ukraine independently. He also filed Valentina’s paperwork with the government without consulting an immigration lawyer. This resulted in several bureaucratic blunders and extended Valentina’s waiting time, but in the end the couple was successful.

Guy and Valentina were married in Ukraine nine months after their initial introduction. Leaving her two teenage daughters in Ukraine to finish school under the supervision of their grandmother, Valentina moved to America with her new husband. But the honeymoon was short-lived. “It was worse than childbirth, leaving my daughters,” she said. “It created friction at first.”

“I was irritated with the problems it created. The first two months were difficult,” Guy recalled. Valentina was also concerned because even though Guy had finalized his divorce several weeks before their wedding, he was still in frequent contact with his ex-wife. “It wasn’t such a good feeling,” she said. “A person from a foreign country is like a blind kitten here, no money, a different language and culture.” She needed his unwavering support. “The things we went through were a plus,” said Guy, looking back on their shaky beginnings. “You kind of get tested.” Both Guy and Valentina agreed that a little communication can solve a lot of problems. “We have a piggy bank,” Valentina said, pointing to a jar on the shelf. “We put money into it when we are mad. The piggy bank is empty now.”
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