Fu Bi Hsia (Foo Bee Shaw) sprinted the last block to her home in a small Taiwanese village. The August sun poured out of the blue-glass sky, and the humid air covered her body like a hot, heavy blanket. To escape the oppressive heat, she ran through the warm grass and along the edge of the benjo (open sewer) where an old woman was beating her clothes clean against a large rock.
Reaching her home, Bi Hsia paused in the front yard to look for her goose, Goldie. A few of her mother’s pigs snorted and rolled in the dirt, her father’s water buffalo lay partway in the benjo, and a stray dog nipped at her heels. But Goldie was not in sight.
Goldie and all the goose’s brothers and sisters had been purchased at the market on Bi Hsia’s ninth birthday. Over a period of many months, they had all been used for food—all except Goldie. Bi Hsia kept Goldie for a friend. They went on long walks together, clucking their way past rice fields and through ditches, walking barefoot in cold puddles, and chasing yippy little dogs down narrow alleys. She even gave her goose an American name, because America was so big and far away and because she believed that everyone who came from there was rich and important. Goldie was important too.
Bi Hsia bounded through the gate and up the stairs to her home. “Mother!” she called.
The two-room house was made of concrete, like most of the structures in the neighborhood. The main room (the living-sleeping area) was bare except for a few chairs, a television, and some rice-straw mats. These were rolled out at night and used for mattresses.
Bi Hsia found her mother in the kitchen, stirring a pot of chicken-egg soup. She stuck her nose over the rim of the pot and sniffed. “Smells good.”
Her mother’s elbow nudged her aside. “Get out of there. Your father has invited guests for supper.”
“Guests? Who are they?” She stuck her finger quickly into the broth as her mother’s eyes searched the cupboard for more eggs.
“They’re Mormon elders. One is from Taipei, and the other has come all the way from America. He will be staying in Taiwan for two years to teach people about his church.”
Bi Hsia’s finger was in her mouth. She sucked the soup juice off with a loud slurp. “How did Daddy meet them?”
“At the market, quite by accident. And don’t you dare stick your finger in there again, unless you want me to use a bamboo switch on your backside!”
Bi Hsia jerked her hand back. “When will they come?”
“Soon,” replied her mother. “Go get changed into your best dress. And get Sun Ming washed. He’s been trying to eat rocks again and is all covered with dirt.”
The missionaries arrived in a taxi. It had a dented fender and a motor that chugged louder and louder as the car drew near. The elder from Taipei stepped out first. “I’m Elder Lin, Lin De Fu,” he said, in the custom of saying his surname before his given name. (Fu is Fu Bi Hsia’s surname.) “This is my companion, Elder Wheeler.”
“Ni hau ma (How do you do)?” Elder Wheeler stepped forward and offered his hand to Bi Hsia’s father. The American’s words sounded strange and stilted, and his thin face appeared hard and expressionless. His hair was like yellow rice straw, and his pale eyes were cold and as far away as the country he came from. Bi Hsia felt her throat tighten with apprehension.
Her father spoke up boldly. “Ni tsung nali lai (Where are you from)?”
It was a strange name. Bi Hsia said it quietly to herself, over and over, “Yu ta. Yu ta.”
Her mother smiled, saying in Chinese, “It’s a long way for anyone to come.”
The elder’s brow wrinkled as he studied her face. “Pardon me. I do not understand.”
Elder Lin put his hand on Elder Wheeler’s shoulder and said something to him in English too rapidly for Bi Hsia to understand. Elder Wheeler listened intently, then laughed at himself. “Yes. A long way.”
The adults moved into the kitchen. Bi Hsia sat on the back step to wait for them to eat their meal. It was not considered polite for children to be served with the guests. She held Sun Ming in her arms, listened to the murmur of their voices, and thought about the faraway places she had never been. She wondered if this elder would ever understand her country’s customs and accept her people as they were. She didn’t think so. After all, he’d come from America, where no one ever had to go without; people there always had lots of things of their very own. Bi Hsia sat and reflected, and in the distance a light evening breeze tossed a weightless white feather in the air. A feather! She got up, paused for a moment, then placed Sun Ming on the grass at her feet. “Now don’t go anywhere,” she said firmly. “I won’t be long.”
All of Goldie’s feathers were there in a little pile by the garden. She knew that they were eating her goose for supper. It was not her place to object. Her family was very poor, and her mother needed meat to serve to the guests. Chinese custom was very strict about children honoring and obeying their parents. And Chinese pride was firm on the point of offering the best that one could.
Bi Hsia did not cry. She walked heavily, as if her limbs were lead weights. She sat on the porch for what seemed like forever and watched the sun die in the sky above Taiwan.
When the elders were ready to leave, Bi Hsia followed them out to the front of the house. The elder from America offered her his hand, and she wanted to hold hers back. He took it and squeezed, and she pulled quickly away. He reached down and lifted her chin. “I hope we can become friends,” he said haltingly.
Bi Hsia kept her eyes averted from his face, and she looked past him to where the lights from the houses on their street shone smaller and smaller as they receded into the distance. Her mouth remained silent, but her heart thumped loudly inside her ribs. Never! Oh, never, never, she thought, knowing that if it weren’t for him and his companion, she would still have Goldie. She watched the elders get into a taxi, and she was glad when it drove away.
Bi Hsia awoke early the next morning. The sun was just peeping through the sugar cane, and her parents and brother were still asleep on their mats. She rose quietly and tiptoed to the door. Outside there was a small scrape, the sound of quick footsteps on the porch, a whisper, and a wild, hissing sound. She opened the door.
At her feet lay a huge white goose, the biggest that she had ever seen. It was bound so that it could hardly move, but its head was free, and it was hissing and trying to flap its wings. As she bent to free it, out of the corner of her eye she saw something move down by the benjo.
It was Elder Wheeler! He was sprinting across the grass toward Elder Lin, who waited on the road with two bikes. As Bi Hsia watched, Elder Wheeler reached his bike, paused for a breath of air, and glanced back. Their eyes met across the distance and held. Then a smile spread slowly across his somber face. It was a sad, happy smile, a smile filled with understanding. That’s when Fu Bi Hsia knew for certain that she and the American, Elder Wheeler, would be friends.