When watching news reports about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the United States, Hannah Maia Frishberg, perched on the other side of the planet, admits she can’t help but sometimes shake her head.

“I feel like a fly on the wall,” says the Ellicott City native, who lives in Shanghai. “There’s been a lot of amazing content about stay-at-home situations that’s been very heartening. But on the flip side, to see those protests [against coronavirus restrictions] in state capitals is just mind-boggling. It feels like a level of selfishness that only Americans could have, without any regard for the general community. It’s frustrating, like when you see someone smoking.”

Still, as a Shanghai resident since early 2017 and witnessing how China’s most populous city has successfully leveled off the coronavirus outbreak, Frishberg feels there’s light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, for China and eventually the U.S.

“We’re down to a couple of new cases a day [in Shanghai], mostly Chinese nationals who came here from [abroad],” she says. “In the next two or three months, we should be pretty close to normal.

“When there’s no more confirmed cases and the testing is there, you feel like you’re heading toward the end. It’s incremental, but it will happen. If people cooperate, that will help defeat this.”

A 2011 graduate of Centennial High School who attended Congregation Beit Tikvah in North Roland Park, Frishberg, 26, serves as senior associate of communications and prospect management for New York University Shanghai.

She is also the senior resident at Shanghai’s Moishe House, a nonprofit that provides hubs of Jewish programming for young adults across the world.

Hannah Maia Frishberg (second from left) is shown with Moishe house residents, alumni and staff from Shanghai, Beijing and the United States. (Photo provided)
Hannah Maia Frishberg (second from left) is shown with Moishe house residents, alumni and staff from Shanghai, Beijing and the United States. (Photo provided)

“Growing up in Howard County, I was always exposed to Asian cultures and communities,” says Frishberg, who graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in international business and Asian studies. “When 30 percent of your school is of Asian descent, you see that they have a focus on academics and a love for education, like Jews. I was swept up.”

After spending her senior college year studying at Shanghai Normal University, Frishberg “fell in love with Shanghai. It’s a very livable city with a very international history. It’s a cool place in that just like some people say New York feels the center of the universe, Shanghai feels like the center of China.”

Bagels and Tacos in Shanghai

Frishberg wanted to remain in Shanghai after college but was unable to obtain a work visa, so she returned home. For the next year-and-a-half, she worked for a couple of organizations and companies in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., until landing a job in 2017 as the community programs manager at Kehilat Shanghai, a group that provides progressive-oriented events and experiences for the city’s Jewish population of between 3,000 to 5,000.

She also landed a residency at the Moishe House there, where she and three American co-habitants plan such activities as monthly Shabbat dinners, taco nights, bagel brunches and Jewish study sessions mostly for Jewish expatriates living in Shanghai.

“I wanted to come back because Shanghai always felt like it could be home to me, and I really wanted to use my Chinese [language skills],” Frishberg says. “For a while, my friends called me the ‘Queen of the Jews’ because I was at Moishe House and running Kehilat Shanghai.”

Frishberg says she first heard about the coronavirus on Jan. 20 while on her way to work and listening to a National Public Radio report on the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, which is a five-hour train ride from Shanghai.

“We started wearing masks right away,” Frishberg says. “In East Asia, you always wear a mask during flu season. It’s considered polite and you don’t want to get sick, plus the pollution is worse in wintertime.”

Two days later, a coronavirus case was confirmed in a building near the NYU Shanghai campus. “That’s when it became real for me,” Frishberg says. “But Shanghai never got too bad because the government acted quickly in Wuhan and shut down the borders, the hospitals got ready and the testing was early.”

Meanwhile, the NYU Shanghai campus was closed and her Moishe House co-residents left the city, bringing programming to a standstill. Rather than stay alone at the Moishe House apartment, Frishberg opted to come home for a visit.

“I was never really afraid of the virus. I was more worried about my mental health because I’m a social person and wouldn’t be good alone,” she says. “When I told my parents I was coming home, they said, “Oh, thank God, we’re so happy!’ But I was actually more at risk being on a plane [than remaining in Shanghai].”

Frishberg came home in late January and stayed for a month, even visiting New York City in mid-February. “I got lucky and didn’t get [the coronavirus] in New York, thankfully,” she says. “While I was home, one person I met told me that if she got COVID-19, she’d blame me. …

“Going back to America, some people felt like I was just getting out of dodge. But I always knew I was coming back to Shanghai,” Frishberg says. “I knew the [Chinese] government would be good with the containment and management of this crisis. They got citizens to stay inside and support each other.”

Over the Curve

Now, Frishberg is back working at NYU Shanghai and most of her Moishe House co-residents have returned, as have the activities there.

Ellicott City native Hannah Maia Frishberg visits Shanghai Disneyland with Hadas Hamam, a former Kehilat Shanghai coordinator and Moishe House resident, before the pandemic. (Provided photo)
Hannah Maia Frishberg visits Shanghai Disneyland with Hadas Hamam, a former Kehilat Shanghai coordinator and Moishe House resident, before the pandemic. (Provided photo)

Still, life has not completely returned to normal. Shanghai citizens must wear face masks in public at all times; social distancing is generally required in public; in classrooms, students must sit at desks in a staggered fashion; people must have their temperatures taken frequently in public settings; and individuals must carry government-sanctioned QR color codes on their mobile phones rating a user’s risk of carrying or contracting the coronavirus.

“It’s more relaxed now and everything is open, except movie theaters and tourist attractions,” Frishberg says. “No large gatherings either. But you adapt with the new situation. It can get annoying at times, but it’s for everyone’s safety. Their policies have kept us safe. When you have a streamlined system, you can react faster. In this case, [authoritarian rule] was a good thing. [The outbreak] was over relatively quickly in China.”

While praising Chinese authorities for their quick actions, Frishberg criticizes the Trump administration for its handling of the pandemic, particularly the president’s penchant for calling COVID-19 “the Chinese Virus” and claiming it originated from a Wuhan laboratory.

“It’s so clear that what he’s trying to do is attribute blame to something to which you can’t attribute blame,” she says. “Wuhan was the epicenter because of the proximity of legal and illegal animal sales there and the fact that there is a large bat population near Wuhan — they think. But it could’ve happened anywhere, even in the U.S.”

Now fairly confident that Shanghai is on the other side of the curve, Frishberg recommends that Americans continue practicing social distancing and keep non-essential operations closed until local governments decide the time is right to lift restrictions.

On an individual level, she suggests, “Routines are important. You’ll have good days and bad days when isolating. Reach out for help if you need it. You don’t have to actually be with someone for them to help you. Community is more important now than ever before, so reach out. And remember, this, too, shall pass.”

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