Dive into the NGO world & the life of an expat: Lucile
This week’s testimony is from Lucile, a French student currently doing an internship in a Mexican NGO. It’s her second time in Mexico, where she went for a year when she was 16. So far, this is perhaps the best example of what our blog series aims at: talking the truth about living abroad and working in an NGO. In-deed, although she loved and is still loving Mexico, Lucile lived in Northern Ireland and didn’t enjoy her time there so much. She also shares her views on Mexico, including the harsh class differences and the many topics you can’t talk about. But no more teasing, here’s the interview, hope you enjoy it!
Why did you want to do an internship in the NGO sector?
I wanted to experience something different from everything I was already used to. I’m working with an NGO for community development projects, and I wanted to discover how to help and mostly to exchange with people who live, think and speak differently. I think they have a lot to teach us. I also wanted to know how it is possible to concretely help people. There is a lot of unfairness in this world that sounds impossible to solve, and there are only empty speeches to give us hope. So I wanted to know how I could concretely act, even at a small scale. I wanted to have another perspective, and my point of view is already evolving, even though I haven’t started working with the community yet.
How do you like it so far? Impressions? Any downsides?
At the moment, we’re still getting prepared to intervene in the community – we are preparing a literacy campaign along with other projects on the side. For example, I decided to work on a course of oral and body expression so I haven’t really achieved anything “concrete” yet but I’m learning a lot and I love that. We learn a lot about communities, indigenes, human rights, philosophy, pedagogy, education, and contrasts in Mexico as well as in Latin America and the world. I learn a lot at the NGO and also in my everyday life in the city. I’m learning how to organize many things such as events for fundraisings, meetings, conferences and so on. I like having those responsibilities.
There is one downside – well I don’t really know if it’s a drawback per se – : it is so captivating that I spend a lot more time, outside of work, reading and searching about those topics. I love what I do but, yes, it takes most of my spare time and I’m not doing as many things for myself as I would.
But when people count on you, you can’t afford a second chance, you can’t be wrong.
Do you want to work in an NGO in the future or do you have other projects?
I’d like to work in intercultural relations. Because culture is what builds our individual and collective identity and this is what everything is about. So, at the moment, I’m working here because I wanted to see something else and working with NGOs was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I don’t really know if I’d like to keep working in NGOs later. I don’t know if I am strong enough, but I’ll see. I think I’ll try to conciliate both. I’d like to make culture accessible to everyone, maybe. It’s really vague still.
In which countries have you lived? For how long?
I was born in France. I have already lived one year in Mexico for a cultural exchange (with Rotary International). Then I lived 5 months in Northern Ireland for an Erasmus exchange and now I’m back in Mexico for a few months.
What did you struggle with the most when you moved abroad? Did you ever have issues because of the difference of culture?
When I moved to Mexico, I was 16. It was the first time I went out of my comfort zone and I left everyone and everything I had known and was used to. It was a great, great, great experience that I’ll never regret, and surprisingly I didn’t struggle at all with the culture shock. I didn’t speak Spanish at all but I didn’t have a choice so I learnt in about 3 weeks. Language was not a problem. I had some homesick moments at the beginning of course, before understanding that time flies and I had to enjoy it. What I struggled the most with; however, was the conservative side of a lot of Mexican people. I had to give up for one year a part of my principles: yes, there is machism in Mexico; no, you can’t talk about abortion so freely; yes, there is a lot of discrimination and class prejudice. This is probably what I struggled the most with and I’m still struggling a lot with this, and even more than before. Four years after, my vision has totally changed. Mexico City is great but it’s difficult. And it’s difficult to accept the fact that you live here while most people survive here. So yes, abandoning some of my ideals, living with the guilt of being lucky, this is difficult. But my exchange year remains the greatest memory I have and apart from that, everything was perfect.
When I moved to Northern Ireland, it was totally different. I simply didn’t like the culture there, I thought people were superficial and what happened was that my French identity grew and grew and grew as I figured how lucky I was to live in France and to be French. I really did have homesick moments there. Or rather moments when I really wanted to go away, not necessarily home but away. I saw great landscapes and I made Erasmus friends but that’s all the good that happened. What happened is that I was confronted to myself more than ever before. This one time I lived abroad was indeed quite hard. So yes, my Erasmus experience is already kind of erased. I know it sounds hard but that’s it; I’m probably living the experience I’m living right now ten times stronger though.
When I moved back to Mexico three weeks ago, well, no struggle at all. Just the realization of those so many things I didn’t notice when I lived here four years ago: I saw them but I lived in a sort of bubble with my host families and I guess I was too young to fully understand. And now I’m independent and spend most of my time in the city, and I see everything. I understand. Seeing small kids hanging alone in the metro asking for money, alone, in Mexico City’s 195 crowded metro stations, that hurts. Seeing a man, so poor and so drunk he is lying in his urine at 12:00pm in a metro station entrance, his pants fallen, not realizing that his sex was out, and nobody caring about it, it hurts. And what hurts even more is thinking that I didn’t realize how important it was four years ago, and what hurts the most is thinking that we can’t change the world. Mexico is far from being the single country where it happens. We seriously have to open our eyes.
What is your advice on making friends in a new country?
Go out, even on your own, and tell yourself you don’t have time to be shy: you’re here for a limited amount of time, nobody knows you so you don’t care what people would think. Sit in a park, a coffee, a pub, and talk. People will naturally come to you (okay that’s easy when you’re a girl, I don’t know for boys, sorry). But yes that’s what I do, or you can also use Facebook groups or Couchsurfing. This is very, very, very easy to make friends in big cities. And never say no to an invitation: you have to enjoy and that would be another occasion to meet even more friends. This was my exchange motto: “never say no.”
Were you afraid of moving abroad?
The first time yes, of course, I was 16, lived in a very small and quiet town in France, and was about to live thousands of kilometers and an ocean away, in one of the biggest, most prejudiced and feared cities in the world. And I have to insist (I know this isn’t the topic but I HAVE to say it) on the fact that Mexico City is NOT only a big, dirty, corrupted and dangerous city. This is partly true, but it’s so, so, so, so, so much more than that. Well it’s not even that dangerous if you know where to go (or if you fake to know), and if you’re careful, just like everywhere else in the world. But I think the most important thing here to be safe is knowing how to communicate, and not being shy. There isn’t one single day when I don’t have to ask my way, or ask for something, ask which bus it is, or just talk to a random person in the street. Mexico is such a mess you can’t survive if you’re afraid of anything or anyone. But well, Mexico is many things… It’s a gold mine of culture, music, history, literature, theatre, dance, relaxed smiling and welcoming people, architecture, museums, food, celebrations, streets, surprises, traditions and colors (ah yes Mexico is far from being that “grey” city everyone thinks it is).
The other two times I moved abroad I wasn’t afraid at all, I know now that time passing by is more frightening than going abroad.
How has living abroad changed you? Would you consider living abroad on the long term or did it make you want to come back to France?
Did it have an impact on the vision you have of your country? In which way? Positive or negative?
It has changed me as it enabled me to see things differently. I could see the bad and the good things we have in France. I love the fact of living abroad because of course I feel special, “not from here”, you always have things to tell, it’s so, so easy to start a conversation, and every new day is exciting. But yes, I also learnt how to love my own country. I didn’t realize how lucky I was in France. Living abroad brings you an international consciousness for sure: I consider myself a citizen of the world. But it also enhances your national identity. When you walk on a street and see a French restaurant or poster or anything, you can’t help but feel a bit of warmth in your heart. Why is that? Your national consciousness telling you “Hey I’m here!” You learn far more about your country and its cultural identity when you move, than when you stay there. You realize what you miss, what you like to talk about, what makes you proud of saying “I’m French”.
So yes, I want to spend my time abroad, for sure. But I never want to stop being French, I want to have my roots here forever, to come back here sometimes and say “I’m going home”. I could never give up my French identity.
How hard was it to come back in your home country? Is it harder to get used to a new country or to come back and get used again to your home country?
It was really, really hard when I came back from Mexico. I had lived an incredible year, I didn’t want to come back to what I had always known, the routine. So I’d say it’s harder to come back home, because you have to accept an experience you’ve been expecting for a long time has come to an end, and you have to move on. But then you realize you’re back in your home country with a different vision, so you live differently, and that’s okay. But I guess it also depends on the experience you have abroad. I was really happy when I came back from Northern Ireland, though I had this bitter feeling something else was over. But I know I’ll cry all my tears when I come back from Mexico again. Ha.
Would you say it’s easy to cross borders?
Yes, if you have the guts and the luck.
Favorite country you lived in? Why?
I can’t say between France and Mexico. I think France because it remains and will always be home, and I just love France. I love living in Mexico but I know it has a lot to do with this, being “someone from another place”. And I know I couldn’t live here forever, precisely for those reasons of ideals, principles that I have to give up on or hide when I’m here. No, you can’t say everything to everyone here, that’s one hard reality, you have to adapt and respect your new culture and you have to know who you can talk to.
Written by Alexandre Telliez and Chloé Ladeira, Crossing Borders’ interns and National Coordinators for France