Living for extended periods of time in faraway places has done radical violence to the way I see my own country.
On one hand, nothing is closer to me than the United States. Its strip malls and churches, its baseball fields and skyscrapers are as familiar as my own face.
Familiar and, to be honest, a bit boring. For a long time I thought of my country as a prosperous but predictable place.
Living in south Asia changed all that. In India and Nepal, I had to make sense of a million little things daily. How should I bargain for goods at the market? What subjects are taboo to discuss? How does the caste system work? Over time, many of these mysteries cleared up. Other parts of society were a closed book and probably always will be.
When I came home to work as a photojournalist in small-town Texas and California, that process repeated itself in unexpected ways. I began to look at everything anew. I watched familiar events play out as if for the first time. I watched high school football games and traditions with the same outsider’s eye that I took to south Asia.
Seen through the camera’s eye, the U.S. looked like a strange territory that I recognized on the outside but never really understood. Whether I was wandering around the California desert or walking inside a Texas megachurch, I discovered an America that was as alien to me as anything I’d seen in Kathmandu.
Over and over again, I pressed the shutter button in the hopes of stopping time for an instant so I could reflect and make sense of the moment.
America is strange. America is funny. America is beautiful. We are an extroverted people. We struggle with self-reflection. Our vast territory is mostly empty but given the chance, we will fill the silent spaces with noise and neon.
Filling the vast empty space with meaning is a daunting task and it can make us a little bonkers.
It can also put a man on the moon.
And with all of our differences, I’m not really sure what holds all 330 million of us together.
Except for the haunting suspicion that we’re probably better off together than apart.