California Diaries: A Russian matchmaker finds pain and love in America
As soon as Yana Donetskaya landed in America in 2003, she did what she knew how to do best: find a husband.
“I am a 26-year-old woman from Yekaterinburg in the heart of Russia, which makes me a perfect mix of Western culture and Eastern wisdom,” she wrote in an advertisement for herself. “I am looking for a responsible man who loves family. I am ready to find my perfect love.”
Years in the Russian matchmaking industry had trained her well. She chose her picture to convey a commitment to marriage and family. In the photo, a blue-eyed blond bundled in furs smiles at the camera while standing beside a granite monument in Yekaterinburg.
Living with her mother, stepfather and sister in a New Jersey apartment, Yana was certain marriage was the key to finding her way in America.
Responses filled her inbox. Many asked her favorite sexual position. Others wanted to know how many partners she had had. She went on a date with an American-born Russian who lived with his parents, and on another with a stockbroker wracked with guilt about making too much money.
After a few weeks she began to receive emails from Alireza Etemadi, an Iranian-born doctor in Orange County. Two months later she accepted his proposal and moved across the country to live in his lavish six-bedroom home in a gated Aliso Viejo subdivision. The upstairs overlooked a secluded canyon.
Most women leave fairy tales behind in childhood. Growing up means concessions and disappointments. For Yana, the opposite was true. She left the hard realities of life behind her, came to America and found her prince.
The day they married, Yana and Alireza only knew a few things about one another. They had broken away from their past to be together. Recent strangers, they were now committed to their marriage and building a life together in America.
Everything else, they promised one another, could be learned.
Yana was not the type of girl to let life, especially her romantic life, go unplanned. Her earliest memories are flickers of tension: parents fighting, a crying mother, an absent father. When her mother, Svetlana, decided to leave her husband, Yana was thrilled to have a home without tears.
Looking back on her childhood, she made herself a promise: Never marry a Russian man.
“My own experience made me realize just how broken a Russian man can be,” she said.
For many women, particularly of her mother’s generation, such declarations were senseless. There were only Russian men. As the Soviet Union began to unravel, the borders opened and many citizens began to recognize opportunities for travel and emigration. Few could afford or arrange it, and increasing instability brought a rise in crime, city by city. Yekaterinburg grew dangerous.
Yana, her mother and her younger sister lived in a first-floor apartment with bars on the windows and a door reinforced with metal. When Yana was 16, armed men ransacked the place after threatening to shoot her 8-year-old sister if she did not open the door. A year later, their mother was attacked on the street with a club and robbed.
The family talked about emigrating, but leaving Russia was costly and difficult. Yana began to see marriage abroad as her only refuge.
In 1994, one of the city’s first matchmaking agencies opened, and within the first week, Yana made her way through the snowy streets to stand in a line that wrapped around the block.
When her turn came, the receptionist shook her head. “Too young. Must be 18.”
The next day Yana returned with Svetlana.
“This is my mother,” she said. “She would like to register.”
Within weeks, letters began to arrive. Yana translated, and Svetlana found herself courted by a Baptist organ repairman from central Florida. After the fourth letter, Earl Goetz visited and proposed.
Svetlana planned to take both of her daughters to the United States, but Yana had difficulty getting a student visa. She was confident, though, that she would follow them in a few months.
But she didn’t. After passing her school exams, she started working at one of the many matchmaking agencies that had opened in Yekaterinburg, and life was, for the time being, tolerable. It was six years before she secured the right paperwork and was able to leave Russia.
In 2003, Yana, 25, stepped off the plane in Newark, greeted by her mother and her teenage sister. America proved less welcoming. She got lost on trips to the store. She didn’t understand how credit cards worked. She obsessed about her diminishing marriage prospects.
“In Russia, 26 is an old maid,” she explained. “My mother kept telling me to relax, that in America, 26 is still very young. But I didn’t believe her. I wanted to be married, start a family, finally arrive.”
Through Match.com, she met Alireza, 37. In his emails, he seemed kind and patient. His family had come to this country just as the Ayatollah was being welcomed in the streets of Tehran.
Three weeks after their introduction, Alireza arrived in New York, rented a car and drove to Newark to pick Yana up for their first date.
Yana remembers looking out from behind the front window curtains. As he pulled up, she could see that he was well-dressed; he even looked like his photos. She watched him walk to the passenger side, adjust and clean off the seat, wipe the dashboard and run a handkerchief over the window.
“This is the man I had been waiting for,” she thought.
They went to dinner in Manhattan. When he asked if she wanted to see a Broadway show, she said she preferred to talk. The next evening he took her and her family out. By Sunday afternoon, Alireza was planning her trip to California, a place she had only seen in soap operas.
When she landed at John Wayne Airport, he picked her up in a Jaguar. Even though he mispronounced her name, she still blushed at his compliments. Only a few months ago she was in Yekaterinburg, translating emails for girls who dreamed of a life like this.
A few days later, he took her to the gazebo at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach. Surfers paddled listlessly on the calm waters, and he got down on one knee. He said that although they had only known each other a short time, he wanted to marry her.
“I know who you are,” he told her, “and you are the person for me.”
Yana laughed. Was he kidding? She teased him: “You are doing it all wrong, you are supposed to pull a ring box out and open it right in front of my nose.”
Alireza took a small box out of his pocket and presented her with a one-carat diamond, set in platinum.
The next day they celebrated with tea at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point. Six months later, they were married on the hotel lawn in front of a sweeping view of a Pacific Ocean flecked with gold. Sea gulls squawked, and Yana shifted gracefully in a meringue of silk and lace.
In a photo, Alireza dips Yana on the dance floor; she leans back, eyes closed, for a passionate kiss.
When two cultures mix, they make a third that often leaves no one comfortable.
Alireza’s family was kind but couldn’t understand why he didn’t marry an Iranian. They couldn’t believe that he had met Yana on the Internet. At gatherings, they spoke Persian, sometimes switching to English.
Yana found it difficult getting to know Alireza’s mother, Mehri. She lived in the same house, and they disagreed about everything from what meals to prepare to how the furniture should be arranged.
Yana tried to cook for her husband, but he passed over the mayonnaise-heavy Russian dishes she had learned as a girl in favor of his mother’s Persian dishes.
In the evening when Alireza would sit down to watch television, Mehri would place a bowl of grapes before him. When he once asked Yana to do the same, she refused.
“The grapes are in the fridge,” she said. “You can get them yourself.”
Alireza accepted the pronouncement, but Mehri was shocked.
Whatever honeymoon they enjoyed was brief, and one month after the wedding, Yana took a drugstore pregnancy test. The results were positive. They celebrated again at the Ritz Carlton.
Andrew was a colicky baby. He slept only a few hours at a time. Yana’s adjustment to motherhood was difficult. She joined a local mother’s group and learned children’s songs and tried postpartum diets.
Two years later, she and Alireza had their second child, a girl they named Autumn. Yana was overwhelmed. She gained weight. She fought with Mehri over spoiling the children, and when Alireza was home, they had little time or interest in one another.
One afternoon in December, during the weekly meeting of the mother’s group, the guest speaker was a professional gift wrapper. She wanted to teach the women how to make the perfect holiday bow.
“That was when I knew I was not an American mom,” Yana said. “So I stopped trying to be one.”
Not an American mom, not an Iranian wife, no longer a Russian woman, she forgot why she wanted this life in the first place.
One afternoon, after picking up Andrew and Autumn from day care, she heard club music coming from a darkened storefront. She watched women coming and going — attractive, well-coiffed — most in high heels with glittering platforms and thin straps.
Yana stepped inside. The walls were covered in mirrors, and stainless poles stretched from floor to ceiling, each occupied with a twirling dancer, shoes shining, hair long and flowing. A woman approached her.
“Are you interested in pole fitness?”
“Sign me up,” Yana said.
At 205 pounds, she was too heavy to use the dance pole and worked instead on the floor routines. She made friends, watched competitions on the Internet and installed a pole in the master bedroom.
Every time she went to the studio, she felt transformed. Alireza did not understand. When he complained that she spent too much time away from home and the children, she complained that his mother still lived with them.
Their days were marked by aggravation, miscommunication and disappointments. Alireza had begun to work every other weekend at the VA Hospital in Dallas, and when he was home, Yana slept with Autumn in a different room.
Just after Andrew’s third birthday, the couple found themselves in a neurologist’s office, listening to what they could not believe. Andrew had tested positive on the autism spectrum.
As they left the office, Yana began to grieve for their son and the loss of what she thought was going to be a perfect life. Alireza continued to deny that anything was wrong and they fought like children, unwilling to reach out and offer the other any help.
Yana tried to educate herself on treatments and therapies, and even as Alireza continued to argue with the diagnosis, he could see that Yana was struggling. Taking care of Andrew, Autumn and their home was too much, and Alireza and Yana decided for the sake of their family to get help.
They met with a marriage counselor, who listened to their frustrations, neither of them willing to give up control in their lives. Think of your marriage as a small blanket, the counselor suggested; sometimes you have to make sure the other is warm before you care for yourself.
Yana tried. She turned her energy away from the dance pole to nutrition. She learned how to fix Persian meals. Alireza tried. He bought a house in Mission Viejo for his mother, who moved out. Soon Yana discovered she was pregnant again.
“Since Amelia was born, Ali and I have not had one fight,” Yana said.
Today a for-sale sign sits on the front lawn of their home. They bought a place in Colorado, where Alireza will work as an ER physician.
Yana has chosen colors for her kitchen and bathrooms. Alireza is talking about buying a few goats and chickens. Yana says he’ll have to take care of them himself.
Laleh Khadivi, a short-story writer and novelist, received the Whiting Award for Fiction in 2008 for “The Age of Orphans.” Born in Iran, she currently lives in Northern California.
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