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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Strangers In Strange Lands

A friend of ours had just come back into town yesterday from his tour of duty in Iraq so I took him out for some dinner in a quiet little restaurant so we could catch up for a bit. Of course, there were a lot of stories about what he had seen and experienced there, but there was also talk of how it was difficult to adjust to being away from all of that.

Being back stateside, he said, felt alien to him… there was a newness to the experience of being in the places where he had previously spent so much time. That experience, he said, that feeling of not belonging here and of not fitting in made him feel like he wanted to go back to Iraq, back to the things he was accustomed to, even though that experience was so dangerous and difficult.

Mind you, my friend isn’t one of those gung-ho soldiers who got into the army because of any love for fighting or anything like that. He told us he was pulling for Barack Obama to win and was hopeful that the change from Bush would eventually improve the situation there and for his fellow veterans. He was happy to be home, but still, there was that feeling that he just didn’t belong here.

It’s a common feeling really, something I hear from many of my friends who are veterans who had just returned from the military who had difficulties adjusting to civilian life again and from coworkers who had a hard time translating the closeness of working with fellow soldiers in that close-knit military society to the, often, backstabbing ways of working in private industry.

Strangely enough, such feelings of alienation and culture shock are similar to those that ex-prisoners feel once they’ve been released back into the world of the free, and part of the equation that leads to the high rates of recidivism in the US for criminals who have spent time in prison. In fact, I felt the same way after being released from jail a few years ago.

When I was released, just prior to being found innocent back in 2006, everything was surreal to me and it was as if I was a stranger in a strange land, even though I had walked these same streets for years before being locked away against my own volition.

I felt lost and as if I didn’t fit in, and the fact that I didn’t even have my own clothes and still had slippers from the jail only added to that feeling of "otherworldliness", garnering me frequent stares from other people on the street as my pants didn’t fit and I only had a loose-fitting shirt on in the dead of winter… all articles of clothing given to me from the unclaimed pile at the jail since my own clothes, splattered with my own blood from the beating I received when I was arrested, were still in a police evidence room elsewhere.

Needless to say, even seeing my own family, who I hadn’t seen for at least a month, felt strange to me and they seemed barely recognizable. Perhaps some part of that was due to my head injuries I sustained from the attack I suffered, but in large part it was also just due to my being locked away from them for so long…

Of course, I did have similar feelings of alienation and culture shock as he did, but I didn’t have that same desire to return to what I had grown used to when I was released. Part of that was due to the mistreatment I suffered, but certainly that couldn’t be the only thing since my friend had suffered some traumatic times in Iraq but he thought about going back.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t fit in with the jail culture, that there was no feeling of camaraderie for me in jail since I stuck out like a sore thumb there and other prisoners treated me different than they treated each other because they knew right away that I didn’t belong. I was, after all was considered, a stranger in a strange land while I was in the jail in addition to feeling the same once I was released.

As I explained this I also came to the realization that the other big difference between my friend who entertained those feelings of wanting to go back, and me who never entertained such thoughts of wanting to go back to the jail where I was mistreated, was ultimately that he had some part in the choosing of where he went. He did join the army after all… but I never committed the crime that put me in jail, and perhaps that’s why I never had those feelings of wanting to return to what I had become accustomed to.

It was a strange discussion and ultimately the topic shifted to something else and other stories of cultural differences in different lands. But it was a conversation I didn’t expect, and now I’m stuck thinking back to that time and how it’s still changing the way I see the world… of how it’s still making me feel like a stranger in a very strange land.

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