The first part of the novel, “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” opens with a short prologue (as do each of the other parts of the novel). This prologue is a parable told by an old woman, who purchased a swan as a young woman before immigrating to America from China. The person who sells her this swan tells her that the swan was initially a duck, but it stretched its neck out in hopes of becoming something better, and magically transformed to a swan. She immediately buys it.
The novel begins with a parable, highlighting the theme of storytelling and the idea that stories act as bridges between people to express complex ideas more easily. In this parable, the woman hopes to change her fate and become something better than what she can be in China. The swan’s transformation represents her hope to transform by immigrating.
On the long voyage, while “stretching her neck to America,” the woman dreams of a daughter “just like her,” to whom she can give the swan as a gift. This daughter, in the woman’s imagination, will be judged by the strength of her own character, not by her husband’s, and won’t be looked down on by others because she will only speak perfect American English.
The woman wants a daughter who innately understands her, but who also has power in the male-dominated world in part by knowing perfect English. The power of language will make the daughter stronger-willed and therefore happier, which is more important to the woman than her own happiness.
When the woman arrives in the United States, immigration officials take the swan from her, leaving only one feather behind. In the chaos of filling out forms, she forgets “why she had come and what she had left behind.”
As soon as the woman immigrates, American officials strip her of her prized possession and confuse her with English documents, leaving her powerless.
The woman later has an American daughter who grows up “swallowing more Coca Cola than sadness.” Over the years, the woman thinks about giving her daughter the feather. However, she holds back, waiting until she can one day tell her the importance of the feather in perfect English.
The mother seems to get her wish: her daughter is an American. But a cultural and linguistic barrier exists between the woman, who experienced so much hardship, and her daughter, who embraces an easier American life without understanding her mother’s sacrifice. The mother is unable to fully communicate her complex story so her daughter can understand her intentions.