I Traveled To Meet With 50 Women In 50 States. It Totally Changed How I See The U.S.

The author in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, during a stop on her
The author in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, during a stop on her "50 States Project." Courtesy of Shari Leid

From coffee shops to dive bars to restaurants with white table linens, I found a kind of joy that’s hard to put into words. It’s a joy that’s woven into the fabric of shared meals, echoing laughter and the exchange of stories that flow as easily as the wine in our glasses. This journey, affectionately known as my “50 States Project,” morphed from a simple goal into a profound exploration to find happiness, belonging, connection and a deeper understanding of myself — a narrative deeply entwined with my unique heritage.

Adopted from South Korea by a Japanese American couple, I’ve always lived at the intersection of multiple identities. My father was born in 1922 in the basement of a rental home on Main Street in Seattle, while my mother’s roots trace back to her birth in 1929 on Bainbridge Island, a 30-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Their lives, and in turn, mine, were forever altered by the events of Dec. 7, 1941. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 cast a long shadow over our family narrative, embedding a sense of cautious belonging that followed us through generations.

For my family, travel was tinged with the remnants of these fears. The echoes of internment camps, World War II and its lingering aftermath shaped a world where movements were guarded and the concept of belonging was complex. My childhood was thus a small universe anchored to the West Coast, with my dad feeling that we weren’t welcome in much of the U.S. due to being Asian. His beliefs were based on his own experiences, both during and after the war. As a child and young adult, I had unconsciously adopted these beliefs as my own.

The author (right) as a child with Henry and Lilian Aoyama, her adoptive parents, both of whom are now deceased.
The author (right) as a child with Henry and Lilian Aoyama, her adoptive parents, both of whom are now deceased. Courtesy of Shari Leid

The inception of the 50 States Project was a declaration of my desire to transcend these inherited boundaries. It was an ambitious quest to forge connections across America and to discover that the essence of belonging is not about the physical spaces we occupy but the moments we share and the communities we build.

As the United States grapples with its place on the global happiness scale, sliding in the rankings of the world’s happiest countries, this journey felt even more poignant. This wasn’t just about personal exploration; it was a reflection on what binds us in the pursuit of happiness.

Diving into this journey — and finding a connection in each state — was a daunting task. I started with familiar faces from my inbox: podcasters, vendors, the kind of people you feel like you know because you’ve traded emails or shared a laugh over a call. Yet, we’d never actually seen each other — not in the real, stand-in-the-same-room kind of way.

Then there were the blasts from my past: friends who had drifted into the background noise of life, voices I hadn’t heard in over three decades. Reaching out to them felt like unearthing a time capsule buried in the backyard of my youth, dusting it off and peeking inside with bated breath. From this mix of the known and the long-lost, I connected with 27 women from 27 different states who were willing to take time out of their busy lives to share a meal with me.

The author (right) with Kate in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.
The author (right) with Kate in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the stops on the 50 States Project. Courtesy of Shari Leid

During the next phase, I turned to the digital world and threw out a call for connections in the gaps of my map in a professional group I frequented online. The response was heartwarming, with strangers reaching out to help me achieve my goal and sending well wishes for my endeavor.

Social media was my last stop. Within a month of beginning my project, I had a beautiful, complete roster of women across all 50 states ready to break bread with me. This group of women — ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s and differing in race, education level, political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation and household income — provided the perfect mosaic for my journey.

The individual stories I encountered on this journey painted a vivid picture of America’s heart. In Connecticut, I met Kate, whose resilience in the face of her husband’s terminal illness underscored the strength found in community support. Her story, set against the backdrop of hospice care and the tireless web of friends and family that supported her, reminded me of the profound impact of human connection.

Maine introduced me to Cameron, whose life, marked by numerous relocations, had found joy in the community she built around her, wherever she found herself. Our time together, which included collecting lobsters from local fishermen for a shared meal at her home, was a lesson in the art of creating a home wherever you are — a testament to the idea that belonging is about people, not places.

As beautiful as my experiences were, I was also confronted by the darker threads of our nation’s fabric. On one part of the journey, just after I landed in Ohio, I passed a white supremacist rally that was taking place. Seeing it was a jarring reminder of the deep-seated divisions still present in our country. This encounter, as unsettling as it was, emphasized the significance of my project in navigating these divisions.

The author (right) with Farrah in Cleveland, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.
The author (right) with Farrah in Cleveland, one of the stops on the 50 States Project. Courtesy of Shari Leid

Despite its challenges, the project was a beacon of hope and understanding. Farrah, who was born and raised in Ohio, felt like a long-lost friend from the moment we met. She and I sat for hours at a restaurant she chose, and the waitress even commented that she thought we were best friends, not strangers who had just met. Afterward, I kept thinking about how amazing it was that I initially felt so uncomfortable in that state, only for someone from there to make me feel so at home and welcome. So much so that I found myself already making plans to return to Ohio to visit her.

Then, traveling to meet Twanna, who grew up in the only Black family in her town in West Virginia, expanded my understanding of connection beyond race. Her perspective on seeing friends as family — on the power of deep connections that transcend superficial differences — was a lesson in the joy of inclusivity.

These are just some of the women who shared their experiences with me — and changed my own life in the process. This journey wasn’t just about ticking off states on a map. It was a heart-opening trek across the emotional landscapes of people’s lives and a deep dive into the corners of my own heart that I hadn’t explored. It taught me something vital: the places I longed to see were merely backdrops to the true adventure — connecting with others, hearing their stories and sharing moments of genuine laughter and companionship over meals.

I transformed my belief from a fearful “I am not welcome” to a confident “I can find people everywhere who will welcome me.” More importantly, I learned that happiness and a sense of belonging sprout from these shared experiences, from understanding and acknowledging our collective past as we weave our present and future together.

Bringing this spirit of discovery home, I’ve made it a point to reach out to old friends and invite new acquaintances to sit down and share a meal. There’s a unique magic in breaking bread with someone, whether they hold the same beliefs as you or see the world through a different lens. Every invitation is extended with genuine curiosity — an eagerness to understand and connect that turns a simple meal into a bridge between hearts.

This practice, this simple act of gathering and sharing, doesn’t require an ambitious project or extensive travel. It’s something we can all do in the communities we live in with each other. Imagine if each of us took the time to invite a neighbor over to share a meal and stories — how much richer and happier our collective lives could be.

The author (right) with Twanna in Beckley, West Virginia, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.
The author (right) with Twanna in Beckley, West Virginia, one of the stops on the 50 States Project. Courtesy of Shari Leid

In these times, when so much in our society feels strained or even broken, this act of reaching out and fostering connections is more important than ever. The women of the 50 States Project are now connected through this experience, and we have Zoom calls every two months as they get to know one another virtually with hopes of one day meeting in person.

My experience is a call to action for all of us — an invitation to create connections that can bolster the happiness and sense of belonging in our country. So, I encourage you, in your own way, to start this journey in your own neighborhood, one meal at a time. Together, we can create a ripple of connection that just might turn the tide, making our community and country a little happier — one shared story at a time.

Shari Leid is a former litigator-turned-mindset and life coach and the dynamic force behind An Imperfectly Perfect Life, LLC. In her flourishing coaching practice, she specializes in guiding clients who feel trapped in stagnation, empowering them to sculpt the life of their dreams. Renowned as a friendship expert and national speaker, Shari’s insights reach far beyond individual coaching sessions. She’s been interviewed on major networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and CTV, and was profiled on the “Today” show in April 2023. She’s written for and shared her expertise with HuffPost, Real Simple, PureWow, AARP, Woman’s World, Toronto Sun and Shondaland. She is the author of “The Friendship Series,” which includes three books: “The 50/50 Friendship Flow” (2020), “Make Your Mess Your Message” (2021) and “Ask Yourself This” (2022). She is currently writing her fourth book (tentative publication date: February 2025), which chronicles her extraordinary journey across all 50 states in 2023 to break bread with 50 different women.

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