Featured Image: “Portrait in Red” by Temo Svirely
I was three when we arrived in the United States. We came here in the late 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. The only memories I have of Russia and Ukraine are the ones my mind created, built from my mother’s stories. In my mind, I imagine what it would have been like growing up with the glittering Russian winters- my babushka taking me to see the lights in the Red Square for New Years, the warm chicken soup she would have fed me on a snowy day. I imagine the warm Ukrainian summers my mom told me about- of picking raspberries from the bushes near my grandfather’s dacha, of growing tomatoes in his garden, of swimming in the Black Sea.
I have these images rooted in my mind, but they’re threaded with my mother’s other stories. Stories unraveling why we left, why my mother and I had to abandon our family, our home, our culture.
In the power vacuum formed by the collapse of the USSR Russian mafias filled the void. My mother told me how dead bodies littered the streets, how children wielded guns to protect their families. She grew up with the KGB- where a word against your government could put your whole family at risk. She taught me to kiss the ground I walked on- American soil- because it was fertile with freedoms.
When mom told people how we came to The United States, and why, the consensus (usually from Americans) was that she should write a memoir. Since mom didn’t know English well enough to write a book, and I coincidentally loved writing, I would become the one to preserve our story.
In my first iteration of the memoir, I wrote about how much I hated Russia. I had a grudge against the country I was born in that I didn’t understand. My mom’s stories of survival led me to despise where I came from, not to mention the American narrative of Russia-enemies because of the cold war, spies, mail-order brides, etc. Every time I sat down to write I raved about how America had saved us.
At that time I didn’t recognize all the ways the United States had not only failed my mother and I, but harmed us in ways Russia couldn’t. We experienced traumas unique to this country. When I completed the book, something felt wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Instead, I tucked my first draft away, knowing it wasn’t the one. I wasn’t ready to dig into the suffering I had experienced at the hands of the United States. I wasn’t ready for my bubble to burst.
Instead, I tried writing my memoir through a comedic lens. When I was a teenager, I made fun of myself and Mom so much that I could ignore the jabs about moms’ accent, or how we were communist, because I had probably already made the joke.
I was in the middle of writing my second draft when a friend from college, who I’ll call Michelle, sent me a text with a picture of a wedding dress made from FedEx envelopes and I finally acknowledged the shame and anger I felt at how we’d crossed the border. Maybe I couldn’t suffocate my feelings anymore because memoir requires some level of self-reflection. The message that followed the image was, ‘LOL is this wat ur mom was wearing wen she came here???’ A thread of fire knotted in my chest.
I responded with ‘lol,’ but I wish I called her an asshole. Instead, I pushed down the spark of flame that threatened to ignite within me.
The picture Michelle sent reminded me of the last conversation we had. Michelle was trying to convince me to watch a reality show because it was “like your life story.”
The show was 90 Day Fiancé. It’s a popular series that follows Americans and their foreign partner as they plan to get married. The catch is that they must do it within a 90-day time frame. If the couple fails to marry, the K-1 visa, or the certificate allowing the immigrant fiancé temporary residency in the United States, is no longer valid and they will be sent back to their home country.
I remember trying to change the subject, but Michelle continued–talking about how the Russian and Ukrainian women on the show were “carbon copies” of my mom. My face burned as she made the comparisons between the women and my mother. Same accent, same clothes, same brutal honesty. As she was talking, I wished, like I had so many times in my life, that I had a different mom. A mom that didn’t sell herself.
I used to fight it. I used to argue that Mom fell in love. That she didn’t care about how much money her husband made. But my defenses were futile. She fit the mail-order bride stereotype too well. Eventually, I turned to humor, making fun of the catalog with her advertisement to my friends, laughing at her seductive poses over a barstool.
“This one lady, I forget her name, looks exactly like your mom. It’s funny because she’s such a bitch. She complains about literally everything.” Michelle said, smiling like she was telling me a joke. “She keeps threatening to go back to her own country and it’s just like, where are you going to go? They showed where she’s from and it’s literally a shit hole in the middle of nowhere. I feel sorry for the guy, though, whatever his name is, because she’s just like, so obviously using him to get out of there.”
I nodded like I agreed with her that this woman was a bitch, that the place I was from was a shit hole, that this man was someone to feel sorry for. I didn’t feel like I had the power to say anything because I came from a country that so many people wanted to leave.
I didn’t finish that second draft of the memoir.
A few years after quietly unfollowing Michelle on Insta, my partner and I were folding laundry and trying to figure out what to watch. I had coincidentally been researching immigration law for a young adult book I was writing. When 90 Day Fiancé popped up on our streaming feed, I decided I would give it a shot, hoping it would inform my novel.
We started with the latest season. In ten minutes, I was hooked.
My instinct was to guess who was there for ‘real’ love, and who was there for the Green Card (and sometimes money). The mystery of motivation compelled me to watch the next episode and the episode after that. I started making bets with myself, itching to grab my phone and discover who was together after the last season aired and who wasn’t.
What made us stop our binge was a storyline starring a Russian woman. Brandon, her fiancé, was in his late twenties, living on a German Shepherd breeding farm with his parents. Julia, a nightclub dancer from Tuapse had just immigrated to the US to be with him. The episode’s plot was about Brandon, his family, and Julia going to meet Brandon’s grandfather for dinner. After the meal, the grandfather was interviewed about how he thought the night went.
The producer prompted grandpa about his opinion of Julia. They said, “Do you worry Julia might be using Brandon?” I cocked my head, this question coming out of nowhere. I hadn’t heard the producer pop in at any other point in the show.
“She’s a lovely young lady but a lot of Russian young women like to come to America and they promise marriage, sex, everything that goes with it to attract them, and then later they (the men) find themselves in trouble,” the grandpa said.
It was like a slap in the face, the words all too familiar.
Grandpa’s comment shed light on something I didn’t realize. I didn’t trust Julia either. I was sure that if Brandon were Russian, or Ukrainian, she wouldn’t want anything to do with him. She was propagating the mail-order bride stereotype (even though she didn’t come here as a mail-order bride). She reminded me too much of my mom. I was mad at her.
I mulled over Brandon and Julia’s storyline, examining my distrust of her. After the episode where Julia and Brandon reunite in the US, Brandon’s parents took her to the Washington Monument. Brandon’s mom doled out facts about the American government, to which Julia replied that she wasn’t interested in politics–neither Russian nor American.
Brandon’s mom looked at her like she was stupid.
Recalling the scene with my guard down, my suspicion of Julia fell away, my heart squeezing for her instead. Julia and my mom were so similar. Mom also didn’t pay attention to politics. Why would either one of them be concerned about politics, when they were raised in a country where you couldn’t question the government? Where the history around criticizing political figures resulted in being sent to a Gulag? Caring about politics was not only dangerous, but pointless.
I also started questioning how much of my bias towards this Russian woman was nurtured by the show itself? Why would the producer ask for grandpa’s thoughts on Julia’s trustworthiness when it didn’t even have to do with the drama of the night? (Julia wanted to get married on Mother’s Day weekend, which pissed off Brandon’s mom, etc.) Would the producer have asked this question if they knew the answer would be ‘Yes! I trust Julia as though she were my long-lost Russian granddaughter!’ The premise of the show was clear, and it was to make the audience question Julia’s motives. I was baited to side with the audience, and I did.
I felt myself unfurling from the American cocoon I had built to survive in this country. I started questioning the cultural ideals I was raised to emulate. I started to see my story from a different perspective – as though 90 Day was a window that I was peeking through. I understood, finally, why my first memoir didn’t feel right. My country’s people didn’t deserve to be disparaged. My mom didn’t deserve to be judged. We came here to escape the government, but that’s not the story I was meant to tell.
In America, the idea that love could be transactional is ridiculed, yet so many American parents encourage their American daughters to marry doctors and lawyers, specifically for their wealth. They just don’t want foreign women or Women of Color to do it. Love for American kids is supposed to be pure and without strings. It was obvious to everyone around mom, including me, that her main priority in marriage was security. I criticized her for it.
My mom’s been called a gold digger, a whore, a liar, a cheat. She was called these things by her partners and their families. She was called these things by her friends. Sometimes, she was even called these things by me. I wanted an American mom with a cute love story about how she met her husband. Or a strong independent mom that pulled herself up by her bootstraps. I was embarrassed because my mother wasn’t participating in these American ideas of love or independence. Ideas that I lauded in my memoir. In worshipping the United States, I was disparaging my mother and her beliefs and actions. I didn’t realize that my mom was a strong independent woman for what she did to give me a better life.
In my third attempt to write my memoir, I still didn’t have the words. Every time I touched a memory or tried to derive any meaning from one, I found searing pain and shame instead. I am more assimilated into American culture than my intrinsic Russian or Ukrainian culture, but I didn’t belong in either one. My only memories of my country are of the stories my mom told me.
It was after my partner mentioned a subreddit thread about 90 Day that was gaining traction that I was brave enough to think about writing again. Redditors were complaining about a Russian woman who dumped her fiancé after finding out he was poor. These people were ripping her apart, saying all Russian women were awful and only wanted men for Green Cards and money.
These terrible comments were painful to read, especially because I had heard and participated in similar sentiments while growing up.
As I was scrolling, it dawned on me. The people of the United States have the privilege to think about Eastern European women who come to this country on K-1 visas as gold diggers because they get to think about love when choosing a partner. I fall into that category too. Mom didn’t raise me in the same way she was raised. Attraction wasn’t about love for her- it was about security. I felt myself unthread the ball of fire deep inside my chest. I didn’t just acknowledge my anger- I felt it. That’s why my second attempt at the humorous version of my memoir didn’t work out. I didn’t find it funny anymore.
90 Day challenged my beliefs in my American upbringing, and in doing so, I realized that attraction is subjective. Before this show, I never thought about how attraction is comprised of different things for different people. The qualities that are praised in the United States are kindness, intelligence, and responsibility. Qualities that represent ‘strength of character.’ Looking for a partner based on wealth, citizenship, social status, and even appearance is vilified.
In the bigger picture, 90 Day helped remove the rose-colored glasses I’d been wearing. I was working on another project with my agent, but I couldn’t stop investigating my memories and belief system. I harnessed the fire that had been building in my chest and poured it onto the page. My memories stopped throbbing. I finally felt prepared to write my memoir.
I thought about how I was constantly trying to prove to my husband’s parents that I’m not using him. How I unconsciously bring up that I’m an American citizen right after I answer the question “Where are you from?” How I get embarrassed when my partner tells his coworkers I’m Russian. How I’m afraid they think we met online.
I was ready to interrogate the principles I was raised with and approach my writing with a newfound clarity.
After watching a few more scattered episodes of the series for research, mostly the ones with Russian and Ukrainian women, I noticed the other characteristics that had made me judge my mother. The Eastern European women come off as cold-hearted and cruel, while the American men were always spending their life savings, doing everything they could to bring their fiancé here. 90 Day doesn’t really touch on what the American men get from their relationship with their Eastern European partner. My personal experience, as well as what I can tell from the show- is that the men want the women to rely on them. They want to provide. They want the control. Just like my mom had specific requirements for her partners- they also chose her because she met their requirements.
The men showered these women with promises–like Brandon taking Julia on trips around the world–but then when Julia arrived in America, Brandon told her he didn’t have any money and that she’d have to sleep in a separate room while they lived at his parents’ house.
American culture values being polite over being blunt- so Russian and Ukrainian women get a bad reputation when they are honest about the frustration of unfulfilled promises their partners make to them. My heart filled with pride as I watched Julia voice her disappointment to Brandon about having to sleep in a separate room from him. She pushed him to confront his mother instead of cow in front of her insistence.
From what I’ve seen on the show, the Russian and Ukrainian women are authentic. They may not conform to conventional American ideas of love, but that doesn’t make their intentions nefarious. They simply aren’t following the relationship guidelines of a country they weren’t raised in. I wondered how my personality would be different had I been raised in Russia or Ukraine. I wonder if it would have harnessed the words for my memoir earlier on or if the urge to write would be there at all.
90 Day instilled a sense of power in me- I am cut from the same cloth as these cold women, these women who are disparaged. I went from feeling shame, to admiring my mom for her transparency. She was so truthful that the qualities she valued in her relationships were obvious to everyone around her.
We became American citizens because of her standards. We escaped a failed state. We had financial security. Because of her, I was able to formulate my own principles for my relationships, finding happiness in a partner that lived up to all of them.
As I reflect on the show, I realize the embarrassment I was grappling with for most of my childhood was concealing a different feeling – an incredible sadness for how my mother was treated. I initially ignored the nagging in my stomach when Julia agreed to stay in Brandon’s family’s home- living in a separate room as her betrothed even though she said it made her uncomfortable. Julia’s relenting was symbolic to me of her slowly losing her power the more time she spent in the United States. It’s something I saw all too often with my mom.
Watching 90 Day Fiancé and seeing the similarities between the Eastern European women on the show and my mom has cultivated a balance between pride and sadness within me. I hate seeing the women on the show degraded for finding success in departing their motherland through their partners. At the same time, I am awed and humbled by the strong spirit present in each woman, a spirit that is so powerful it makes Americans uncomfortable.
My mom was vilified for how she came to the United States, but she never let anyone get in the way of what she strived for. Recognizing her bravery and conviction both inspire and embolden me, especially now. I think about what my life could have been if mom had stayed in Russia or Ukraine and how the embarrassment I felt growing up was a privileged feeling.
After watching 90 Day, I have a different perspective on my life’s narrative. Through reflecting on these women and their relationships, I’m no longer embarrassed of my mom. I respect my culture and heritage. I want to be closer to the woman my mom is and further away from the values I crafted to assimilate. I don’t have a mom who fell in love how I was able to fall in love. My mother is a survivor in a way most Americans won’t ever understand. I am honored to be the daughter of a woman who courageously advertised herself in the pages of a magazine. I feel brave enough to write my story with complete vulnerability because of who she is and the sacrifices she made. She molded herself to fit into the confines of her dreams, and the result is that I can boldly follow mine.