-By Lera Loeb as told to Jessica Pilot

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 brokerage 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.

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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 8 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 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.

(Click Next to read the rest of Lera's story.)



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