'Sesame Street' debuts Asian-American muppet

‘Sesame Street’ debuts Asian-American muppet.

What’s in a name? Well, for Ji-Young, the newest muppet resident of “Sesame Street,” her name is a sign that she was destined to live there.

“So in Korean traditionally the two syllables mean something different and Ji means, like, smart or wise. And Young means brave or brave and strong, ”Ji-Young explained during a recent interview. “But we were looking for it and guess what? Ji also means sesame “.

At just 7 years old, Ji-Young is making history as the first Asian-American muppet in the “Sesame Street” canon. She is Korean-American and has two passions: rocking out on her electric guitar and riding a skateboard. The children’s television show, which first aired 52 years ago this month, gave The Associated Press the first look at its adorable new occupant.

Ji-Young will be formally performing on “See You Together: A Sesame Street Special.” Simu Liu, Padma Lakshmi and Naomi Osaka are among the celebrities featured in the special, which will launch on Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, the “Sesame Street” social media platforms and on local PBS stations.

Part of Ji-Young’s personality comes from her puppeteer. Kathleen Kim, 41, a Korean American, became interested in puppets when she was 30 years old. In 2014, she was accepted into a “Sesame Street” workshop.

That turned into mentorship and he became part of the team the following year. Being a puppeteer on a show that Kim watched growing up was a dream come true. But helping shape an original muppet is another feat.

“I feel like I have a lot of weight that maybe I’m putting on to teach these lessons and be that representative that I didn’t have as a kid,” Kim said. But fellow puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who plays Abby Cadabby, reminded her, “It’s not about us … It’s about this message.”

Ji-Young’s existence is the culmination of many discussions after the events of 2020: George Floyd’s death and incidents of hate against Asians. Like many companies, “Sesame Street” reflected on how it could “cope with the moment,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of Creativity and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street.”

Sesame Workshop established two working groups: one to analyze its content and another to analyze its own diversity. What was developed was Coming Together, a multi-year initiative that addresses how to talk to children about race, ethnicity, and culture.

One of the results was 8-year-old Tamir. While he’s not the show’s first black muppet, he was one of the first to speak out on topics like racism.

“When we learned that we were going to do this work that would focus on the experience of the people of Asia and the Pacific Islanders, of course, we knew that we also needed to create an Asian muppet,” Stallings said.

These newer muppets, their personalities and their looks, were remarkably built in a matter of months. The process normally takes at least a couple of years. There are outside experts and a cross-section of employees known as the “cultural trust” who weigh in on all aspects of a new muppet, Stallings said.

For Kim, it was crucial that Ji-Young was not “generically pan-Asian.”

“Because that is something that all Asian Americans have experienced. Like they want to get us into this monolithic ‘Asian’, ”Kim said. “So it was very important that she was specifically Korean-American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here.”

One thing Ji-Young will help teach children is how to be a good “advocate.” “Sesame Street” first used the term on its “The Power of Us” television special last year, which featured Tamir.

“Being an advocate means pointing out things that are wrong or something someone does or says that is based on their negative attitude towards the person because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or where they are from,” Stallings said. “We want our audience to understand that they can be leaders.”

In “See You Together,” Sesame Street is preparing for Neighbor’s Day, where everyone shares food, music or dances from their culture. Ji-Young becomes angry after a boy, off-screen, tells him to “come home,” an insult commonly thrown at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But she feels empowered after other Asian American Sesame Street residents, guest stars and friends like Elmo assure her that she belongs as much as anyone else.

The fact that Ji-Young was created to counter anti-Asian sentiment makes her more special to Kim in some way.

“I remember the Atlanta shootings and how scary it was for me,” Kim said. “My only hope, obviously, is to help teach what racism is, to help teach children to recognize it and then speak out against it. But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes watching different kinds of kids on TV. ”

Vanessa Leung, Co-Executive Director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, is excited about Ji-Young. The organization was not involved in the creation of Ji-Young but previously consulted about anti-racism content on Sesame Workshop. It matters when Asian American families, especially many of them immigrant families, can find themselves reflected in an institution like “Sesame Street,” Leung said.

“It sparks curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our community, the beauty in the diversity of our community,” Leung said.

Ji-Young will be very present during the 53rd season of the show next year, Stallings said. It also will not only be used for content related to racial justice. It will appear on various digital, live-action and animated shows.

As the new girl on the street, Ji-Young hopes to show her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture, such as food. She loves cooking dishes like tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes) with her halmoni (grandmother). And he already has a friend from “Sesame Street” who wants a sample.

“I’d love to give it a try,” said Ernie, who joined Ji-Young’s interview. “You know, I have tried bulgogi. I really like bulgogi. I guess maybe old friend Bert hasn’t tried Korean food. ”

Having already made several famous friends on “Sesame Street,” is there anyone Ji-Young still wants to meet?

“Las Linda Bondas because they are so cool,” said Ji-Young, referring to the teenage punk rock band. “And they rock out and they’re cool girls and most of them are Asian. They are my heroes. If we can get Linda Lindas in ‘Sesame Street,’ I’d show them around.”