Philippe Labro (1936 – ) is a French writer and film director. The following excerpt is from his autobiographical novel, L’Étudiant Étranger (Gallimard, 1986), winner of the Prix Interallié. It was adapted into the 1996 movie, Foreign Student. The novel paints a cultural landscape of Eisenhower America in the 1950s, when Labro was a young foreign student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Here, he recalls an encounter with the university’s Assimilation Committee.
The Rule of Engagement, along with the coat and tie dress code, was one of the university’s two unbreakable traditions. It involved saying “Hi!” to everyone you encountered, or – if that person were first to greet you – responding in kind. I was taken aback at first, not so much by the idea of saying hello to a stranger crossing campus, but by the mindset that required me to say it, and say it, and say it again, all day long, no matter my mood and no matter who it was coming up alongside me. And I had followed the Rule. It was not a law written on the walls of the college, but, effectively, since everyone did it, if you didn’t do it you quickly found yourself branded a lone wolf or someone who was poorly raised; either way, you were one of those who didn’t want to play the game. Moreover, if by chance you neglected to respect the Rule of Engagement, you could always count on there being someone, at least once a day, to bring it to your attention. One way was to give ironical emphasis to the “Hi” and look you straight in the eyes; this was always enough to make you respond. The other was to notify the Assimilation Committee.
The Secretary General of the Assimilation Committee was a fourth-year student, a tall fellow from Texas called Gordon Gotch. Seated behind a shiny cherrywood table, he cleared his throat before speaking. His voice was soft and deep, low, and played an air of satisfaction, a voice in which there was no room for doubt.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Very well,” I said.
“Not too many difficulties with your studies?”
“No, I don’t believe so,” I replied. “And then, when I fall behind, I go see my advisor, which helps me a lot.”
“It’s true,” said Gordon, pivoting to his two associates. “Advisors have always proven to be very helpful to foreign students.”
I had the impression he had lingered on the word foreign, but it might just have been the way he spoke; the Texan accent tends to trail off at the end of a sentence. He spoke slowly, without taking his big brown eyes off me. I started to feel uncomfortable and debated maintaining eye contact or switching my gaze to the other two. One was red-haired, the other ash blond, both looking puny in the presence of the large-boned mass of flesh Gordon Gotch was. Neither one, since our initial greeting, had opened his mouth.
“This, of course, is an entirely informal gathering,” said Gordon.
“Entirely informal,” repeated the red-haired boy. The blond said nothing. A moment went by without anyone moving. I waited.
“We understand very well,” continued Gordon, “that a foreigner, a foreign student, takes a little longer than others to get used to our traditions. We understand that.”
He leaned in to me.
“Everything is going very well,” he said. “Everyone is pleased with your behavior on campus, but there is this Rule of Engagement. We are in receipt of information that you are not complying with it. Not really.”
“But this is not true!” I said. “It’s false.”
Gordon smiled. He sat up in his chair, firm in his conviction.
“Please. Wait. The Assimilation Committee is not one to make such allegations lightly. We verify, always.”
“Always,” repeated the redhead. The blond weighed in silently with a nod.
“But I do say hello,” I protested. “I’m sorry. I greet everyone, and reciprocate when others greet me.”
For the first time since he had welcomed me into the room, Gordon looked unhinged. He sought his words. His thick brown eyebrows furrowed under the strain.
“True. You do say hello, but . . . .” He fumbled, and leaned his heavy head over the table, as if to avoid recognising my indignation.
“But what?” I said. “What?”
“It is not,” Gordon continued, sounding embarrassed and disappointed, “that you do not say hello, or that you do not return the greetings. It’s not that. We checked. We agree it is not that.”
“That is not the issue,” he repeated.
Then he relented, as if it were a huge notion, a shame to give it expression: “It’s that you don’t smile when you say it.”
“When you say hello you don’t smile,” he said again, pressing the point, and leaving it, this time, to each of his associates to repeat this essential sentence.
The blond and the redhead turned on me the same look that as good as said: Well, there you are! At the end of the day, it’s not complicated.
Everything went very quickly after that. I did not know what to say, and the Assimilation Committee, for its part, seemed to conclude that it had fulfilled its task. Gordon stood and shook my hand.
~Translation copyright 2022 by Aidan Rooney who is indebted to his French IV classes at Thayer Academy for working this translation. An excerpt from Rooney’s translation of Emmelie Prophètes novel, Les Villages de Dieu (Mémoire d’Encrier, Montréal, 2020) is featured at AGNI Online (October 2022). An earlier excerpt appeared in Vox Populi (April, 2022).
You were lucky they didn’t shoot you. Foreigner. Not smiling, it’s just too much. The hypocrisy of the American Way of Life.
Still, you have to like the softness of the satire, non?