Picture this: two women sitting in a restaurant in New Mexico. One woman’s father was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease and the second woman herself has breast cancer. Over a candid discussion while sipping their coffees, each woman realizes that this is the year they will start living with purpose. This is the year that will change their lives.
Though this sounds like a conversation between two best friends, this is part of a greater project that former attorney and life coach Shari Leid is pursuing. Titled “50 States Project,” Leid is using her own funds to travel through the United States over the course of a year to share a meal with a stranger. It’s not just food that she’s looking to exchange, but also stories, culture, and friendship. She’s hoping to eventually extend this project to international locations and even write another book about her experience. She’s documenting her travels on her Instagram page.
As an Asian American woman, Leid is part of a greater community that has felt that travel is not easily accessible to them due to cultural and financial barriers. With her project, Leid aspires to break down these impediments and be part of the fabric of American travel culture. She and I sat down recently to discuss her journey:
This article has been edited for clarity and length.
Pooja Shah: What inspired you to start this travel project?
Shari Leid: I’m a Korean American, adopted as a baby but raised by Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II. Because of my parents’ experience and political strife towards the Asian community, I was raised with the idea that travel in the States is not available to me, because I’m not welcome. As a result, my travels were always confined to the West Coast, and it wasn’t until I had a family of my own that I began to see the value of traveling more extensively. I began to reassess how to travel meaningfully and find connections with strangers, particularly women, to hear their stories.
PS: What states have you been to so far and what are the reactions you’ve received?
SL: I began planning this journey in March 2022, but it wasn’t until January 2023 that I was officially jet setting. I created a big spreadsheet of all my dates, contacts and places to go, and I traveled to 27 states on my own. Some of these women I never met before in person but reached out to them through social media or via friends of friends for connections. For 13 states I had no leads, so I looked on LinkedIn and Googled small business owners. My only criteria was that the people I meet identify as “female” and are responsive and good communicators. Some of these women never even shared a meal with an Asian person before and I wanted to bring them a positive experience.
The youngest person I met was in her 20s from Austin, Texas, though I’ve met so many wonderful women from a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, and political beliefs which adds to the diversification of the project. I recently went to the South and I was surprised at how welcome I felt. I always tell myself that you get what you give, and I want to give positivity and an open mind.
PS: How does your family feel about this project?
SL: My family is really supportive; in fact, my husband has picked five states he wants to accompany me to and has traveled with me to three so far. My children are both adults so they support me from afar. However, I hope to inspire my daughter who is adopted from China and also looks Asian American (compared to my half-Korean half-White son, who looks mixed), to always keep pushing forward. I want her to assume that everything is available to her and to inspire her to pursue her own dreams and not feel like she can’t do the things she wants to do.
PS: What have you learned about female friendship through this experience?
SL: I coach women and my books are all about female friendships, so I am really interested in the dynamics between women and identity and growth. I found it surprising that a number of strangers told me they were worried they were not interesting enough to meet, but in reality everyone has a story that needs to be told. I also learned that people are willing to sit down and talk to you if you ask, but you need to be open to make the first move. Every meeting was different and taught me something new about them, their lives, and their perspective on the world.
PS: What did you learn about yourself?
SL: I can control the way people can receive me and that I have more power than I give myself credit for. I had so much imposter syndrome growing up and while practicing as an attorney, but what it did was rob me of my voice and the ability, the value that I, as an Asian American woman, can provide. Through this process, and realizing how receptive people are, I am taking control of my narrative and allowing my unique voice to shine through. I want to make sure that others see me, and that if a stranger is going to interact with an Asian American at some point in their lives, they will have an unforgettable experience.
Published on May 22, 2023