[#RapplerReads] When you’re neither an American nor a Filipino, then what are you?

Julian Cirineo
[#RapplerReads] When you’re neither an American nor a Filipino, then what are you?
There are no white picket fences and fulfilled American dreams in Lysley Tenorio's "The Son of Good Fortune", but there is happiness

Editor’s note: #RapplerReads is a project by the BrandRap team. The book featured in this article was provided for by our affiliate partner, Fully Booked. We earn a commission every time you shop through the affiliate link below.

In Lysley Tenorio’s The Son of Good Fortune, an undocumented Filipino named Excel brings us through what it’s like to have no nationality to ground your identity on. And I never realized how crippling a lack of identity can be.

As Filipinos, we aren’t strangers to what a TNT (tago nang tago) is. We’ve all heard stories of family members, distant relatives, neighbors or what have you, staying in foreign countries despite not having the right paperwork to do so. It was only through Tenorio’s novel that I began understanding that there is more to this than making a risky attempt at reaching greener pastures.

The Son of Good Fortune, which was recently picked up by Amazon to turn into a series, begins with Excel coming home after leaving his mother, Maxima, behind for nine months. As the narrative switches between the present and the past, we begin to understand why he was reluctant to return. After a short-lived taste of freedom to be himself and having the ability to choose his own future for the first time, he is now withdrawing to a life that had none of those.

You see, Excel was born without an identity. His mother gave birth to him en route to the US, and since she gave birth inside a Philippine Airlines plane, he wasn’t granted citizenship upon arrival. It was only on his tenth birthday that he was told about this reality.

“We’re not really here,” is what Maxima told him – a line that he would repeatedly use as a reminder of their situation. It was also the moment that he realized his wings had been clipped since birth.

When the opportunity for him to form his own identity came – by being involved with a girl named Sab who would whisk him away to Hello City – he took it. HC was a dream because it was a place that didn’t care about who you were and where you came from. It was here that he learned he could be so much more than just Excel, a nineteen year old boy who worked in a tacky pizza place in Colma. 

He left home thinking he would never come back, and decided HC would be a place he can live in. But due to circumstances that I wouldn’t spoil, he was forced to go home.

[Buy The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio for P499.50 on Fully Booked]

The Son of Good Fortune isn’t an emotionally harrowing read, but it did force me to contemplate what it’s like to have no past nor a future.

Excel only had fake paperwork. He couldn’t get a driver’s license, he could never ride a plane, heck, he couldn’t even go to a hospital for a medical emergency. Out of fear, he would miss opportunities for him to excel academically or professionally (an irony given his name). He misses so many things in life that we take for granted simply because he’s “not really there”.

While many would assume that life in a foreign country is full of prosperity and opportunity, Excel paints a picture of how confusing and difficult it can be. His story shows that survival is just part of the equation, and that forming healthy relationships with other people will be mired with confusion. He would question the decisions that Maxima made in the past, forming resentment to a woman who only wanted a better future.

We also get a glimpse into the sacrifices that Maxima, a former B-movie action star, continues to make. We see how clever she has been despite everything that life has thrown at her and Excel. Although she had been doing odd jobs here and there, she resorted to knocking on the hearts of men she met online for money. Later on, we see how intricate her system of deceiving men is showing just how much thought and effort she has put into doing this, yet still keeping a sense of morality by only taking what she “needs”.

We also see how time apart from her son changed the way she looked at herself. There is also an exciting moment in the book where she and Excel come so close to an airplane she feels as if she can just cross a gate and leave everything behind, possibly inspired by her own son’s actions.

Then there are also moments of great love and happiness. We see a sense of self blossoming from Excel as he created art for the first time with a man named Red in Hello City. We see pride from Maxima when she finds out one of her films will be featured in a campus showing, and when she sees Excel finally master the “Maximattack”. The moments between Excel and his pseudo-father figure Joker were also touching, as well as his friendship with the old Siberian immigrant named Z who enjoyed testing new English words with X (his nickname for Excel).

The Son of Good Fortune has many unpredictable twists and turns, but it was neither confusing nor forced. I feel as though I really got to know each of the characters, and I was empathetic toward the actions and reactions they make. 

The book also begs the question of whether or not those who make it abroad are really the “fortunate” ones, or whether prosperity and a white picket fence is necessary to be happy. 

Excel never really answers the question of whether he is a Filipino or an American or maybe none of those, but his mere existence touched many lives despite not having his own identity to ground on.

The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio is currently on sale via the Fully Booked online store for only P499.50 from its original price of P999. Get your hands on it through the link below. – Rappler.com

Julian Cirineo

Julian is a senior content producer for Rappler's BrandRap. Before joining the team, he worked for an NGO focused on plastic pollution, and was also a managing editor for a magazine. He started his career as a producer and writer for a TV news network.