By Nini Ong , Kluang, Malaysia

Like most Malaysians, I was brought up to believe that the only path to happiness is to study hard, work harder, and to secure a stable position in a Malaysian National company. And so I followed this path. But I was always looking forward to the opportunity for a unique life experience that I can’t get back in Malaysia. When I decided to enroll in Work & Travel USA program it wasn’t an easy. I knew that my parents would object strongly to my decision. They always wanted to see me succeed the conventional way and making them believe this trip was worthwhile was a challenge.

I still recall how heavy-hearted I was moments before departing. I kept questioning myself, wondering if I should just cancel the plan and go back. Back to where I am comfortable with, living a dull lifestyle with my friends and family back at home. Now that I think back on it, it was definitely a decision I never regret making. It was one small step I made in life that would lead to huge discoveries for me.

With this work program I spent four months working in a hotel in Keystone, South Dakota. Honestly, the first few weeks I was feeling home sick. But before long my housemate and local friends kept me company and occupied most of the time. Thanks to them, I never felt that I was alone there. My employer was kind enough to arrange many meaningful activities where I could interact and bond with the locals, and I felt that I truly got to experience American (and western) culture.

Keystone, South Dakota

Saying goodbye to everyone when I left Keystone after those four months was the hardest part. At the same time I was excited to begin backpacking around the USA for a month, and follow my dreams. Since time was limited, I chose to travel only along the western coast.

My itinerary included the following cities:

Seattle – San Francisco – Los Angeles – San Diego – Las Vegas

This was my first time traveling solo, so in the beginning it was a huge challenge for me. My friends recommended that I check out the Couchsurfing site to get to know locals and find places to stay while traveling. Meeting up with friendly locals is definitely the best way to travel because they know the place well and you can experience the real local culture.

Traveling to the USA was a big dream of mine, just as it is for many other people. However, traveling to USA is not as simple as traveling to other Asian countries. Preparing to work is a long process: apply for visa, make an appointment, and go to the US embassy for an interview. Then there’s the long flight, jetlag, and completely different climate that takes some time to get use to.

For me, as a fresh graduate student, money was the biggest concern. As the US dollar is much stronger than the Malaysia Ringgit, traveling to US costs a lot of money for me. In US, the public transportation and infrastructure is very well-established, which made my journey easier. More than anything else, the one thing I like the most about USA is the people. I love to connect with people there, who always offer a warm greeting to everyone, especially the bus passengers. Most of them say ‘Thank you driver’ before they exit the bus. This really impressed me that people appreciate one’s effort. Asian people are sometimes too shy to express their own feeling. Once at the metro station in San Diego, a homeless person came to me while I was looking at a map. He asked me where I wanted to go and showed me the route. He did not even ask for a dime, instead just offering a big smile and a blessing.

It was an inspiring journey to be sure. Like many students, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do upon graduation. I now feel as though I have a clear-cut perspective on life and a clearer picture on my future path. I learned things that can never be taught from a text book, and it is through personal experience that I realize life can be so beautiful especially when you are surrounded by positive people. I enjoyed the lifestyle in the USA and Americans are very enthusiastic. Apart from being able to see and experience a different part of the world, perhaps the biggest reward was realizing the impact that leaving my comfort zone can have. No doubts there were some minor hiccups during my stay in the USA, but there were so many other wonderful things that compensated for any small issues I had. And then I will never forget making tons of truthful and sincere friends from all around the world along the way. I was never alone throughout the whole journey.

As a Malaysian, we don’t get many opportunities like this. Besides having the opportunity to travel with minimum budget, you will meet new friends, learn a new culture, explore a different perspective, and gain new precious experiences in your life. These moments I will never forget and escape the description of words. You just have to be involved in the journey to understand the beauty of it. This journey was indeed an eye-opener to me; it was my first but will not be my last adventure.