Thoughts on the Coronavirus as a Student from China

By: Devora Freundlich  |  March 22, 2020

By Devora Freundlich, Staff Writer

My name is Devora Freundlich and I’m a senior at Stern College for Women. I’m originally from Beijing, China. I lived there until I was fourteen years old, and then moved to Israel to attend a high school in Zefat. I’m Chabad, and my family consists of “Chabad shluchim” – emissaries – of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory. This little introduction is all to say, that although the coronavirus has blown up and escalated Stateside in the past two weeks, it’s a reality which my family has been living for the better part of two months. 

When I proposed writing this article, the state of the virus was so different. Nothing of note had hit the United States yet, and the pandemic nature of the virus was unfathomable. Indeed, my mother was still staying in New York, waiting for the veritable storm to pass on seemingly safe ground. I was prepared to write an article about a topic foreign to YU Observer readers. The article would tell the story of my family’s experience, as we navigated this unknown and frightening situation occurring in distant China. Unfortunately, this article no longer tells a foreign story, but I will do my best to share my family’s experience from the beginning of the outbreak.

Like many Americans (somehow yes, I do consider myself one), I wasn’t too concerned when I first heard about the virus. Granted, it popped onto my radar earlier than most, but even with my family living in the heat of it all in Beijing, I wasn’t worried. My frame of reference for something of this magnitude was the SARS crisis in the early aughts. In 2003, at the height of the SARS epidemic, my family continued to live and operate in Beijing. We wore masks and didn’t leave the house unless necessary, but from a child’s perspective, it didn’t seem too bad. Although my memories of that time are vague, I remembered enough to feel secure that all would continue along as per usual and that this novel coronavirus would die down almost as quickly as it had spiked.

My calm slowly faded as the Chinese government began enacting unprecedented restrictions to combat the outbreak. First, they closed down schools. Then, they began restricting travel between cities and provinces. I began fearing for my family’s safety. 

Prior to the outbreak, my mother and two youngest siblings had planned a visit to the United States. Realizing the increasing severity of the situation, they moved their trip up to an earlier date. My father, the rabbi of the Beijing Jewish community for nineteen years and a loyal and dedicated leader, decided to remain alone in China for as long as he safely could. When my mother arrived, people were still referring to the virus as a “China problem.” Even though we are not and do not appear to be Chinese, we received racially charged comments from people aware of our connection to China. This underlying tone of bigotry surrounding the virus was an interesting start to what would develop into an international pandemic, affecting people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. 

On a personal level, the experience was difficult. My father was in Beijing, providing medical supplies to those in need and holding down the fort in an almost completely deserted city. My mother was in New York, trying to keep morale up and normalize the situation for both herself and my younger siblings, while working on what to do next. Due to flight restrictions, they couldn’t fly back, so it made the most sense to just stay put and wait it out. After three weeks, the situation began to feel less like a waystation and potentially more long term. 

My younger brother enrolled in a school in New York. My younger sister began attending a local school, but left after a short period of time for being made to feel unwanted by some of the students and faculty members because she was from China. My parents decided to send my sister to stay with close family friends in Israel until things subsided, along with my other sister who was already studying in high school in Haifa. The feeling of unsettledness and displacement deepened for my family as the holiday of Purim approached. 

In Beijing, we throw a giant Purim extravaganza every year. There’s always a theme, which my mother creatively uses to set up a community event which people wait for all year round. This year, there would be no grand party and my parents wouldn’t be able to celebrate with the Beijing community. Although my mother and siblings celebrated with family here and my father celebrated with members of the Israeli embassy in Beijing, it was certainly a more somber experience than usual.

After Purim, Corona-related concerns began to die down in China just as they picked up in the United States. Throughout my Purim, I heard people speaking about the virus and trying to comprehend how much it would impact their lives. Some – myself included – held onto the assumption that it would be a quick scare, and that we’d all move on quickly (are you sensing a theme yet?). 

As the situation worsened, it became clear just how impactful it would be and considerations for the holiday of Passover began. My mother is originally from South Africa, so  my parents decided it would be the best place to stay with my younger siblings for the time being. Due to border restrictions, my older sister and I will not be able to spend Passover with our family in South Africa. 

So much is unknown and we can only do our best to try and stay safe, practice social distancing, and wash our hands like we always should have been. This experience has made me consider how home isn’t just a place, or a structure. It’s an old and perhaps cheesy trope, but home is really the people who imbue that place with a feeling. I’ll be celebrating Passover here with extended family, and my parents and younger siblings will get the chance to finally be together after this separation. Life right now feels unsure and disjointed, but hopefully we can all come together in this time and find a way to connect and thrive. The best we can do is be there for one another, support our communities, and look to uplift those more deeply affected by the outcomes of this pandemic.