Charmaine + Grilled Cheese

Today’s menu: grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches on rosemary bread, cruciferous salad, watermelon basil spritzers, and raspberry rose lychee semifreddo for dessert. 

In our conversation back in June 2019, we explored her family dynamics growing up, her work as a policy researcher, the relationship between food and her identity, and her life here in D.C. 


We started with the basics: her origin story and her family. 

Charmaine Runes was born in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Her mother and father had backgrounds in economics and engineering, respectively, in the Philippines. They moved to the UAE in 1989, about six months after her older sister was born. Screen Shot 2019-12-06 at 2.31.16 PMHer family then moved to Dubai when she was in fourth grade. Eventually, the two parents were able to convince their siblings to move to the UAE as well, and so Charmaine and her siblings grew up with extended family in the area. 

What was it like growing up in a Filipino family in the UAE? What was the dynamic growing up and coming to terms with your identity and culture as a child? 

My cousins, aunts, and uncles didn’t come out to the UAE until I was twelve… thirteen, fourteen. I spent some time with other Filipino families, but I remember asking my parents why they didn’t choose a Filipino church for us to go to, and they said, “Well, we checked some out, but we didn’t want you kids growing up in a homogeneous environment. We are in a super diverse country, why not just expose you to different cultures and languages?”

grilledcheese_12.jpgI would think – the human inclination is to find your people, to feel safe, feel supported, and feel understood… There were Filipino families, but they were not our closest family friends growing up. We hung out with an Indonesian family, a family from Hong Kong, some folks from the US, a lot of folks from India. I never really thought about how my parents could have chosen a different upbringing for us… To that point, there are a lot of Filipino people – a huge diaspora in the UAE, so it wouldn’t be hard for them to find that community. 

In her later years, Charmaine moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota for university, where she studied economics and was then connected with an opportunity to work as a research assistant at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. 

What are some of your proudest and most fulfilling accomplishments while working in research? 

I can think of three. The first was when I had the opportunity to work with an immigration researcher. She got a small grant from a local Smithsonian – the Anacostia Community Museum… They asked this researcher to look into migration flows for Latinx communities, but not in your typical cities in Texas, California, or New York… They were like, “You look at lesser-known cities like cities in North Carolina, or Baltimore – what migration patterns are happening there?” So she did this research for their introductory video, and she asked me for help. I feel like being able to contribute to the kind of research that’s accessible to the public, not just academia, or other policy researchers… [the effect is] Kids can walk through these exhibits and think, “I didn’t realize so many people from El Salvador go to Baltimore.”

Screen Shot 2019-12-06 at 2.29.28 PMTwo: when I pushed for and managed to produce our first Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month blog series. Urban does pretty well in describing racial disparities in terms of wealth, home ownership, health outcomes… but one of the things they are trying to do better is describing why things are the way they are. There’s a project called the Structural Racism Project and the way that I got involved was me noticing in all of our publications, “Where are Asian Americans?” This was troubling considering we were the fastest growing racial demographic group in the country and we make up a really significant share of the foreign born and immigrant population – where are we in the research? No one could give me a really good answer. So I thought, well, if senior people aren’t going to care about this, then I’m going to write. And I’m going to recruit other people for writing. 

grilledcheese_1So I went to the coordinator of the Structural Racism Project and said “Hey, I think this is really important and I can use this blog series as a platform.” … And we did it the following year, and the year after… I felt proud not just because I got to publish stuff, but because I told other junior staff and research assistants, “Hey, you have something to contribute, you know stuff. Even if your supervisors or managers don’t treat you that way, you have a lot to contribute and you know your own experiences, so you can write about it.” 

The third thing: My shirt! Data for Black Lives… I saw a tweet one day talking about how there’s a group of people trying to start a conference for data scientists, mathematicians, activists, educators who are concerned about how big data is not really doing anything to support the well being for black folks… and I thought, “This is so cool! I want to support this!” and I would retweet their stuff all the time… I wanted to show support. Eventually, that turned into a conference invitation. During the conference, I stayed on twitter and I was live tweeting the conference. 

Screen Shot 2019-12-06 at 2.29.53 PMAt the end of the conference, the organizers said, “Is Charmaine here? Where’s Charmaine?” … I slowly raised my hand, and they said, “YOU have been live tweeting this whole time, and this was so helpful for the folks who couldn’t make it, so thank you for putting your energy and labor toward doing that. You have been supporting us from the beginning.” They know who I am… that relationship turned into a deeper working partnership with the organizers of Data for Black Lives and the Executive Director came and spoke at Urban because of our relationship – so I just feel like I have made all these really wonderful connections. That’s probably the best part about my time at Urban – either connecting with other researchers or being able to contribute to research that connects non-researchers, like the public, people who don’t have their heads in policy in any way. It’s been a good four years. 

Charmaine has also written stunning pieces for Inheritance magazine. One of my personal favorites, Bitter Melon is in the Heart, explores her identity related to food, and we go back down that route.

Can you elaborate more on the relationship between food and your identity? 

I have a lot of really good childhood memories associated with [Filipino food]. I think about my grandma in the kitchen up super early in the morning… She’s frying garlic in a pan. Five in the morning and I smell garlic… and she makes eggs and fried garlic rice for me. We don’t have a lot to say to each other [and she did not speak a lot of English]… She will sometimes speak in Ilicano, but we mostly sit there and eat together. And I’ll say “this is so good!” and she’ll say “thank you, you should eat more.” Those are the kinds of conversations we had.


Charmaine has now been pescatarian for three years, which has changed her relationship with her family’s food. 

Now I’m a pescatarian and there are a lot of things I choose not to eat. Add on the fact that I’ve never cooked Filipino food to start – now I refuse to eat pork, I don’t eat chicken anymore… What, I’m never going to have chicken adobo for the rest of my life? That feels difficult to navigate because I think of adobo and I think of family dinners, my mom bringing out this brown stew…

Those [memories of food] are like crystallized in amber. I can’t touch those anymore. I can’t relive them because of this lifestyle choice I’m making now… Part of me is sad because I choose not to recreate moments like that… but on the other hand, I feel like they are like museum exhibits; I can return to them whenever I want and think, “Those are good times, and that was really good food.” 

What was the reason for deciding to go pescatarian?

grilledcheese_3When I first moved to DC, I was very frugal – I had an entry-level job at a nonprofit… I would take the train or walk to Chinatown where the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library was, and I would hang out there until 9:00 when they closed. I would be there from 5:30-9, sometimes bring dinner or buy a sandwich there, and just sit there and read. I feel like that was where I got a lot of my political education, at a public library. If I wasn’t home cooking, I was in a library reading about different recipes. So I was like, ‘I want to know more about where my food comes from.” 

The consensus was that the environment was fucked. 

I felt like individual actions should not be held up to the highest standard in terms of climate change, it’s the corporations. But I felt like maybe I could play a very tiny, tiny part by cutting back on meat… But If I’m a guest in someone’s home and they don’t know I’m pescatarian, I’ll eat with they offer me. I try to be a good guest… you want to receive people’s hospitality. That was really important to my family. “You eat what they give you!”

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of living in DC?

I’ll start with my least favorite. People who drive here are so reckless – a man almost knocked me over on my bike ride over here! I have [also] found it hard to find folks who ask very genuine questions and aren’t trying to use it for networking. “Networking” shouldn’t be a dirty word, but it always feels like it… I feel like D.C. has a very consumerist culture… [especially for] us transplants who are trying to survive. 

Screen Shot 2019-12-06 at 2.30.20 PMThings I like: I like how small it is – it’s a decent sized city, but I feel like I can get around almost anywhere on my bike. It’s super walkable. I could probably walk for hours… I really like my neighborhood [Trinidad]. I have so many grocery stores. I love the go-go music that people blast from their cars and on the street. I appreciate people sharing this gift of music… people are playing just for the joy of it, and I appreciate that culture. 

Do you have any words of wisdom for other people moving to DC and trying to make it? 

  • I think it would be nice if people said hi to their neighbors more. I feel like once I started doing that, the whole city started lighting up. It’s not just a dog-eat-dog city. There are people here who appreciate human interaction once in a while.
  • Find things to do that you love…If you realize that happy hours aren’t your thing, don’t go. 

I hate happy hours. 

grilledcheese_5They’re the worst. They’re loud, they’re expensive, and you’re usually spending time with people you don’t like very much. People kind of gave me a hard time at work about it – but I was like, “I’m broke. I don’t want to spend money on alcohol, I’d rather spend money on food or my bike.” Happy hour is such a big part of the culture here. It’s easy for folks to feel like they’re missing out on a lot. If happy hours aren’t your thing, maybe they’re not the connections you’re looking for. There are a lot of artist groups and spaces for creative people that I wish I had known earlier.

  • Public transportation is sometimes reliable… When it’s not on fire.
  • Walk around. DC is super walkable, take advantage of that. The monuments at night are really great because there aren’t tourists and it’s really peaceful. Once I walked the Lincoln memorial in the fall and you can just sit there and think, or listen to music.
  • Also, free museums.

Screen Shot 2019-12-06 at 2.30.46 PM

grilledcheese_10I really do love DC and I think, generally DC loves people back. It took me a while, but I felt like I found a lot of healing in DC. I felt like I matured, I learned a lot, I met so many people. I’m going to grieve when I leave, but I feel like I lived well in the time that I had here.

Listening to Charmaine’s insight on D.C. was so refreshing, because so many people complain about this city day in and day out – and that negativity gets contagious. I am so happy to have had the chance to get to know her better and enjoy this meal together before she left D.C. for her next adventure. 


Charmaine is now rock climbing, eating, and working toward her master’s degree in computational analysis and public policy in Chicago, IL. 

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