A House of Secrets
Peter Huang and his three sisters were raised in a house of secrets in a small town in Ontario. When he was born, he was given the Chinese name of Juan Chaun which translates as powerful king. He was the only son and was expected to be an example of masculinity and power. However, his is not how Peter saw himself for he was certain that he was a girl. In this coming-of-age story that shows us how much it costs for one to follow the path that was planned by others and not his own heart. This is the story of struggles with gender and with finding a place in society.
Peter lives in the shadow of domineering father and was a boy among boys at school. When he gets his first job late, he has to deal with a tough boss in a restaurant. He moves into his own place and almost divorcing himself from contacts with his family aside from his sisters. As he explores who he is, he has intimate relations with females.
Peter’s parents were always remote—not only did he not know his parents’ names, he did even know where they had come from until late. At home, English was the spoken language. Peter begins to move toward a feminine personality when he begins to work and is out of the family home. He had never really been much of a son and his father abused him verbally and his peers did so physically because of his feminine ways. He had a rough childhood as a gender non-conforming child in a home and a society that stifled him. He stayed in the closet well into his adult years and he internalized the hate he felt. He knew that he was the only person like him. Because of the way that the author treats the subject, we feel Peter’s pain and his humiliation. He suffers being marginalized and different. He had been forced to accept himself as male but he knows that he is really female. He knows that he is a girl in a boy’s body.
It was not just Peter who wanted himself to be a female. His three sisters did so as well. His father was determined to impose masculinity upon him and this had severe effects on Peter both emotionally and psychologically. He naturally experiences violence at school. When he was an adult he moved to Montreal and began to watch how others related and began to experiment with cross-dressing and explored the possibilities of a sexual and emotional life that had been denied to him. Only after his father’s death do the other members of his family begin to explore the alternatives to the kind of lives that are defined by traditional Chinese social and gender roles.
There is no denying that this is a didactic narrative as we always feel that the story is as much about the tyranny of traditional patriarchy as it is about gender. We certainly become aware of the misguided assumptions patriarchal societies impose on developing children, about the narrow and destructive limits on behavior and expression, even thought, imposed by societies. Peter did not allow himself to be limited by those who want to force masculinity or by those who understand and want to help him find self-identification. In fact, this reads more like a study than as a novel. Unfortunately, everything is predictable but it is still valuable to those who are experiencing or have experienced what Peter did. I just wanted the book to say more than it did and there is nothing new here—I have read it all before, several times. By making it a story of an Asian perhaps the author felt that she was going somewhere new but it is the same old story retold.