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Cottage Grove woman shares Minnesota with Malaysia

Julia Reimann of Cottage Grove (second from left) spent 11 months in Malaysia as part of Fulbright US Student Program. Submitted photo courtesy of Julia Reimann

For Julia Reimann, the trip home to Cottage Grove for Thanksgiving involved a bit more than a short jaunt over the river and through the woods.

It meant flying back from Malaysia, a 30-hour journey in which she crossed at least nine time time zones on three different planes.

Reimann, 23 spent 11 months in southeast Asia on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, where she taught English to middle school and high school students.

“It’s such a beautiful way to learn about the world around us and (to) realize we are only one small part of the world and our actions really do affect the world around us,” Reimann said.

The Fulbright scholar program pays for travel, lodging, health insurance and other expenses for those who pass a rigorous year-long application process.

Reimann applied for the selective program while at Luther College, where she graduated last year with a double major in music and religious studies.

During her junior year, she took a religious diversity class that inspired her to delve deeper into a religion other than her own: in this case, Islam. After considering several destinations, Reimann chose Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion.

“I had studied so much about Islam in the classroom but had never experienced a Muslim majority society,” she said. “Just being able to see how religion and culture would combine in this new place was just fascinating to me.”

In January, Reimann flew to Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, where she spent two weeks of training with other Fulbright English teaching assistants. From there she moved to nearby Alor Setar, the capital city of the state of Kedah.

She roomed with a fellow student across from the school where she taught.

“When they found out I was from the United States they would say something about Donald Trump or, ‘What do you think about Donald Trump?’ Often that would be followed by ‘Oh, many Americans are afraid of Islam.”

She wanted to show that wasn’t the case. “I think it’s important for Americans to be in Malaysia … and share that experience and be representatives of a different kind of thinking,” she said.

While she taught them English, her students helped Reimann try to learn Bahasa Melayu, the official language of Malaysia.

The most useful word she learned was “Boleh!” a sort of all-purpose affirmation that roughly translates as “Yes I can!”

Could she learn to eat and like durian, the indigenous fruit with the prickly pod whose odor has been compared to rotten onions, turpentine and sulphur? Boleh. Could she lead 500 students in through an aerobics class on her first day? Boleh!

Reimann also was required to spend time with students outside of school. She went jogging with some of them in the park or had them over to her house to teach her about Malaysian cooking.

“Malaysians are very proud of their food,” she said.

She took part in Hari Raya Puasa, which means “Day of Celebration.” The festival marks the end of the month-long Ramadan fast.

“In Malaysia people just loved the celebrating so much,” she said. “It was a time of open houses. People would pop between houses and share their meals with everyone. Instead of a week it was a month-long celebration.”

She said she always felt safe and welcome.

“A lot of what this year about is the exchange of mutual understanding,” she said.

Reimann and a fellow Minnesota student organized an educational day camp that they dubbed “Minnesnowta,” where students made paper snowflakes and drew comics that resembled the characters from “Peanuts” by Minnesota native Charles Shultz. They also listened to an episode of “A Prairie Home Companion.”

She thinks the lesson stuck.

“Now there’s a community of Malaysians … of probably 500 students, who the only place in the United States they want to come is Minnesota,” she said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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