I am a month post my Peace Corps service and back home in the United States. While my head is spinning with things I “should” be doing, I have also been reflecting and processing my experience. Recently, I listened to a podcast episode called, “Social Compliance” by The Friend Zone. The topic resonated with me because it urged me to reflect on how I was feeling at the beginning of my service. Social compliance happens when you agree to do something that may or may not align with your values, in order to avoid saying “no” or for fear of being perceived negatively. Fran, a co-host of the show said, “Ask yourself, if you say yes to this; what are you opening the door to? [Energy is a motion] You’re cultivating who you are. [So] me saying yes to this person, when I don’t want to, I’m inviting more of that energy in.” But we’ll come back to this a little later.
I lived in the Dominican Republic for the past two years, in a small community near the Haitian-Dominican border. This village was the furthest place from the picturesque white sand, beach resort filled with palm trees one might have of the island. I often endured a bumpy, sweaty six-hour bus commute to the capital of Santo Domingo. The environment is actually pretty dry where I lived, similar to a desert climate most of the year, except during hurricane season. My main responsibility was to work with the community and local schools as a Primary Literacy Promoter. Typically, every Peace Corps Volunteer gets assigned a local counterpart, which is a member of the community, in efforts to facilitate your primary project. This counterpart, to be used as a resource in your transition, may change throughout the course of service, depending on your growing personal and professional relationships. In my case, working with literacy, I was assigned to work with the local school director.
During training, Peace Corps does a pretty good job informing trainees about topics specific to the Dominican culture. They presented cultural and social-emotional training workshops that included topics such as machismo, Dominican cultural norms, health, safety, and security. The most emphasized was the machismo workshop. It addressed ‘appropriate and inappropriate’ professional dress versus our American ideals. Machismo is a word that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as "a strong sense of masculine pride; an exaggerated masculinity." A culture that exhibits machismo tends to have rigid gender roles.
Working in education, specifically in a primary school in the Dominican Republic, standards for dress are very conservative, especially for women. Female teachers often wear pantsuits, regardless of the ninety-degree weather. Being Mexican, machismo was something I experienced growing up. Tías (aunts) and prim@s (cousins) cooking and cleaning, while the Tíos (uncles) play and chat. The difference this time was experiencing this first hand in the Dominican workforce. The language was not a barrier, nor was integrating into everyday life. The challenge was facing certain situations unique to being a young professional (read: under 25 years old) woman working with a rigid and traditional school director.
I quickly realized that what my fellow female Peace Corps colleagues considered appropriate to wear in their school was not going to be the same for me. It certainly did not help that the teachers would use comparisons of how amazing the previous volunteers were and what physical contributions they made to the school. Although I know that they genuinely meant well in their intentions, it was not the right timing for me to hear that. The energy at the school was tense and every time my project partner had to have a meeting with me, I would be notified that is was highly important, but with no exact time ever given, thus creating unnecessary suspense feeding into my anxiety. This was my first-hand experience on how the staff at the school were very indirect in their communications styles, versus direct and to the point as I’m used to the United States. I quickly got over that but this feeling of being “policed” began to take over my body, and created anxiety that I had never experienced.
In an effort to reduce my anxiety, I decided to spend less time at the school and instead help two literacy tutors in a different school down the street from my community. Because there are two schools, it gave me the opportunity to still be productive without the guilt of feeling like I’m spending less time on my original assignment. I created the opportunity to expand my relationships and meet new students as well. I soon realized how much better I felt overall and knew it was a sign that I needed to listen to my intuition. As my Peace Corps cohort would say, “The vibes don’t lie.”
As I reflect on my experiences, growth and focus on my future, I have learned what has helped me other than feeling it in my body. I ask myself, “If you say yes to this, what are you opening the door to?” I never felt that I was compromising my integration or mission I dedicated to upholding as a Peace Corps Volunteer. A simple change of project partners and school (that was down the street!) was openly and positively received from my peers and program managers, therefore, I knew I was making the right decision for me.
Remember, energy is motion. What energy am I inviting into my life? By saying yes to this person, when I don’t want to, invites more of that energy into my life. Am I willing to be compliant against my better judgment? Am I willing to put someone else’s needs, over my own?
There comes a time in your life where the perception of others must not take over you. I have reached a point where I don’t care how I am perceived. As long as I know that everything I do is with an ethical and moral purpose, I am not doing what I don’t want to do. Social compliance sneaks into our daily lives and gives away our power. Those of you who are navigating your business, peers, relationships, or whatever you are aspiring to be, trust your intuition. Don’t give away your power.
In efforts to balance your energy and check in with yourself, here are a couple of tips and resources that help me maintain my vibe:
The Insight Timer app has helped me tremendously. I love it because it is beginner friendly. There are guided meditations that you can browse for any mood or situation you need to breathe through.
Self-care! Whether that is eating your favorite food, exercising or pampering yourself to a mani/pedi, do it! And do it often. Do whatever makes you feel good. I love when I put on a full face of makeup, even when I’m just hanging out in the house.
Listen to the Friend Zone Podcast. Every week Fran has a wellness segment where she shares amazing tips and products to help be your best self! Asante shares his weekly music playlist and Dustin trash talks reality TV. They are also hilarious and make me look like a crazy person when I have my headphones on, laughing at myself. Find them on Soundcloud and wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Legal disclaimer that I must include for Peace Corps reference.
“The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Dominican Republic Government.”
Zaira Vicario is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served as a Primary Literacy Promoter in the Dominican Republic from March 2016 through May 2018. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Women's Studies. Driven by education, wellness, and beauty, she takes pride in giving back to her community and making memorable moments with her family and friends. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.