Mrs. Woo purchases a swan in Shanghai that she attempts to bring to America. The vendor tells her that the swan was formerly a duck who stretched its neck too far and became a swan; it became far too beautiful to eat. On the way to the US, Mrs. Woo tells the swan that she will have a daughter who will lead a life far better than what she (the daughter) could have had in China, as she won't be measured by her husband's belch (in other words, she won't only be valued by what she offers to her husband) and will speak English well. Mrs. Woo believes that the swan symbolizes her daughter, as the swan went on to live a better life than what was expected.
When Mrs. Woo arrives in the US, the swan is taken away from her by immigrations officials, but she is left with a single feather as a memory. She keeps intending to tell her daughter what the swan feather means. She wants to say to her daughter, "This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." However, as the mother can't speak perfect English, she keeps putting this expression of her feelings and her hopes off. The feather symbolizes all the dreams and hopes Mrs. Woo has for her daughter, but the daughter isn't necessarily aware of how her mother feels.