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Home from Iraq--"What was it like over there?"

Foreign students entering American culture are usually surprised then dismayed by the question "How are you?"

The foreign students, at least the ones who have never been to America before, try to answer the question and say how they are. They soon find that is a mistake. No answer is expected.

In America, "How are you?" is followed immediately without a pause by "I'm fine." Then by a monologue such as, "I got this totally awesome new Coach purse just by friending the Coach page on Facebook, like free. So did I tell you my roommate just went totally whole foods. Grrrrross!! . . ."

The fifty-year-old-white-guy riff on this I have been hearing lately is, "What was it like over there?" After that question there is a pause and a wide-eyed look that says 'Please don't say anything awful.'

My usual answer is, "Hot."

After that answer, the person I am talking to exhales audibly, smiles, then says, "I am so busy. We just got this new contract. My oldest is going to college next year. I don't know where we are going to get the money. . . ."

I am back to work and back to commuting on the train from Lancaster to Philadelphia. I sat with a guy on the train who asked "What was it like over there?" Without waiting for an answer he said, "It must be weird to be back where people care about nothing but themselves." Then he talked for the next 15 minutes about how tough it is for his business in this economy, how he is sacrificing for the business, etc.

I have two very good friends who both recently used the same expression while we were talking. One friend is from Iraq, one is from my service in Germany in the 70s. They each said, "There is no one like you in my world." They are both blue collar, from blue collar families, with blue collar friends--except me. Even though I had not gone to college when I was in Germany, I was reading a lot and learning to be a writer. I was leaving the blue collar world I grew up in during the late 70s, even before I went to college. And by returning to the Army as a sergeant, I was re-entering the blue collar world as an outsider.

I am glad to be back in my world. But it's really clear that the two worlds are not better or worse, just different. People who never read books can be endlessly interesting and funny. People who are very smart can be duller than butter knives.

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