Work and Travel USA – my experience

(Written in August 2010, few weeks after I return from my 91-days Work&Travel USA trip. It was for the “scholarship application” by Speedwing where 3 winners would receive a reimbursement of their application fees, approx $1.3k)

I was introduced to this program by my brothers, who went for the program back in 2007 and had a great time. Back then, I was under 21 and it didn’t occur to me to go for this work and travel program as I would be under-aged for many activities. However, after much discussion with my friends, we decided to ‘live in the moment’ (YOLO in today’s context) and throw ourselves into this adventure of a lifetime. Three months of freedom, in a land of freedom.

My employer was Jenkinson, a fairly nondescript, small, family theme park along the Jersey Shore in New Jersey (NJ). Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is a pretty nostalgic “amusement park” with old school and small scale rides, a $7/entry paid beach, an aquarium, many arcades and F&B choices. In all honesty, we chose this employer as we didn’t have much choice back then as the popular ones like Six Flags were all filled. Jenkinson was convenient as it was only a 2-hour train ride from New York (NY) and the housing had air conditioning (FYI: our rental was $70/week compared to other employers with $30-40/week). As Point Pleasant Beach was a tourist destination, everything was expensive, especially the groceries (Walmart was a $2.15 USD bus ride away and the bus frequency was every hour at a bus stop 20 minutes walk away from our accommodation). Nevertheless, Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach really lived up to its name of being a fun, family-oriented, peaceful and pleasant place. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a beautiful house (resembling The Sims) with an excellent sea-view from the balcony!

Settling down in this foreign land was not as easy as we thought. From day one, we realized that we were on our own. We had freedom! Freedom which came at a price. We had to do all sorts of household chores, ranging from cooking and cleaning to doing our own laundry. We soon discovered that cooking our own food was not going to be as economical as we had thought, as the prices of the groceries in our small town were much higher than expected. Fruits and vegetables were really pricey but we managed to put our infamous Singaporean thriftiness to good use, purchasing groceries that were on specials and with discount coupons in order to save money! On most days, we would cook and pack food for work, as we found American cuisine to be rather unhealthy and expensive.

I worked at South Beach Sweets, a candy and ice cream shop. In addition to serving customers, I was given the opportunity to get some hands-on experience in making chocolate-covered strawberries, gourmet apples and marshmallow men!

I thoroughly enjoyed my 9 weeks of work there. Despite having prior experience working in front line service back in Singapore, the experience I had there was totally different! One skill I had to acquire was patience. The people there preferred doing things leisurely and were more willing to wait, as compared to the people in my home country. This was really important as I had to constantly remind myself to ‘take my time’ and focus on not making any mistakes. As the weeks passed, I became more efficient and confident in serving these ‘foreign’ customers. It was really heartwarming to receive tips and compliments from customers who would sometimes initiate conversations with us. Having  these short cultural exchanges at work was something I looked forward to. I guess work did not have to be tiresome and boring after all!

My colleagues comprised the locals, as well as foreign students from Taiwan, Russia and Turkey! Most of the locals were younger than me, some even starting work at the tender age of 13, refusing allowance from their parents. It must have been challenging for them to balance both work and school.

It is fun to work there as the customers one comes across can be rather engaging and interesting. Of course, there will be those unreasonable and scheming customers who seem like they are out to make life difficult for you. However, the customer is not always right, and our managers would help us handle difficult customers who appear to be ‘bullying’ us.

The experience was also an eye-opener for me as I got to witness the American life first-hand. The culture there is such that people are willing to splurge on luxuries (especially chocolates) despite their exorbitant prices. The best way to learn about a country’s culture is to live it, and I am thankful for this work and travel experience, as it has given me a great opportunity to understand more about the Americans’ lifestyle and culture. The real fascination begins when I witness events which I thought were only possible in dramas and movies. Anything can happen in the United States!

Getting to know people working there is extremely easy, as the area in which we work and live is relatively small. There were foreign students of various nationalities, including Ukrainians, Macedonians, Moldovans, Bulgarians and Mexicans.They often invite us to their parties and gatherings where things can get fun(ny) in a unique way. They hold weekly ‘birthday parties’ (which are not really to celebrate birthdays and it was interesting to learn about their partying lifestyle.

Work aside, the more exciting half of this program  was to find outlets to spend the money that we had earned! This included shopping and travelling around the area on our weekly days off. On our days off, we made the effort to visit factory outlets, the Six Flags Great Adventure theme park, New York City, Atlantic City and even managed a 2-day trip to Boston. The shopping at the factory outlets was fantastic and the prices of brands were about 40-90% cheaper than those in Singapore! We were spoilt for choice!

After ending our work term, we went on an East Coast tour which covered the major attractions in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Initially, we wanted to go ‘Free & Easy’ but dropped the idea as it was really costly to travel between cities via public transport. People in the USA usually drive. The 5 day tour was worth every cent of the USD$270 we paid and we had a wonderful time.

After our East Coast adventure we took a domestic flight to Los Angeles, recharging for our ‘free & easy’ exploration of the West Coast. We felt a great sense of accomplishment for planning the whole West Coast vacation by ourselves, as we had gone through a lot of trouble in order to secure our Flight tickets, Hostels and Hotels bookings at highly discounted rates! Their transport system turned out to be better than expected and it was not as difficult to cover the attractions we had planned for. We went to Disneyland and Universal Studios and although the tickets were pricy, they are certainly ‘MUST- GOs’ in Los Angeles! We visited the Hollywood Sign, Rodeo Drive, Venice, Santa Monica Beach and even Beverly Hills! On top of the amazing attractions, there was even more shopping to be done!

After our Los Angeles adventure, we set forth for Las Vegas, even though we could not gamble due to the age restrictions. The night lights there were enchanting and we even managed to catch David Copperfield, who left us bewildered with his illusions. We were immersed in the lively atmosphere of Las Vegas, enthralled by the beautiful night lights and extravagant buildings. We definitely enjoyed ourselves there, despite being under 21.

After leaving Las Vegas, we took the Greyhound bus to San Francisco. A highlight of our West Coast trip was our bicycle tour across the Golden Gate Bridge. There was a huge sense of accomplishment when we managed to reach our final destination, a quiet but scenic town called Sausalito. The view along the cycling route was simply mesmerizing and definitely a highlight of our whole trip!

The 12 weeks we spent in the USA were truly memorable. It was a good chance for us to live in a foreign land, where we had to settle everything by ourselves. It was a learning process for most of us where we learned to understand ourselves and our friends better. It was tough living together despite the friendship we already had, but we eventually managed to compromise for the greater good. I personally enjoyed planning travel itineraries and when things worked out well, the satisfaction I got was indescribable.

This trip was a test of my independence, survival skills and of course patience. I would definitely recommend this trip. USA is a place to experience how interesting life can be. There is just too much to do!
Also, not forgetting Jenkinson – a good place to work and ease into the slow-paced but pleasant lifestyle, topped off with a daily dose of sea breeze and beautiful horizon.

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