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DISPATCH | Déjà vu from Aix to Shanghai

Aix-en-provence (Left) vs. Shanghai (Right)
Jacqueline Zhou / The Daily Princetonian

Dispatches at The Prospect are brief reflections from our writers that focus on their experiences during the summer.

This summer, I’m almost living a parody of southern French life. I’ve eaten more cheese and bread in June than perhaps in my whole life before coming to Aix-en-Provence, but it turned out that Aix was not as foreign a place as I’d imagined. 


On my first day in France, I shared a Bolt (a popular rideshare app in France) with my friend to travel from Marseille Airport to Aix. Driving past landscapes filled with cypress trees under a startlingly sunny sky, I felt as if I were traveling through Cézanne and Van Gogh’s paintings. Before seeing Provence in person, I thought that the overly saturated greens, blues, and ochres used by Impressionist artists were simply a part of their artistic interpretation. But those colors were as real as the olive trees and grape vineyards right in front of me. 

Upon arriving in Aix, however, a different type of déjà vu set in. It was the familiarity of home, which was strange considering this was my first time in Europe. Yet I wasn’t thinking of home on the American East Coast; instead, I thought of my grandparents’ apartment in Shanghai. Everything I saw, from the architectural style of the buildings to the sycamore trees that lined the streets, was like an uncanny slice of Shanghai. It was only the street signs written fully in French that made it apparent that this was not China. 

It turned out that I had it backwards. When I called my parents later that evening to tell them about Aix, they laughed and told me that my grandparents live in what was formerly the French Concession in Shanghai. From 1849 to 1943, the French occupied a sliver of Shanghai and transformed parts of it into a copy of French cities. It was strange and bewildering, realizing that what I had thought was undeniably Chinese all my life turned out to be historically French. One of the first things I learned in France turned out to be about the legacy of their colonization in my home city across the globe.

When I first imagined studying abroad in Aix, I thought of trying new foods, speaking the language, and understanding the French way of life. My experience here has fulfilled all of those expectations and beyond. However, traveling the world brings surprises not only about foreign places, but also involves parts of my identity that are close to my heart. Living in a postcolonial world may stop us from pretending that we are separate from the places we travel to, but I like to see it as the privilege to be more aware of the interconnections between us all.

Jackie Zhou is a news contributor for the ‘Prince,’ she can be reached at

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at