Meet Ji Young: The First Asian American Muppet On “Sesame Street”

The show is making history with her!

PBS‘s beloved educational show Sesame Street has for years been one that promoted diversity and educated on social issues, and it only gets better.

Sesame Street is making history as they have officially introduced a new muppet resident, Ji Young. Although the show has been on television for 52 years, Ji Young is their first Asian American muppet.

Ji Young is Korean American. In her introduction, she has already proudly communicated her Korean cultural heritage, explaining the meaning behind her name and how she believes it’s a “sign” she was meant to move to Sesame Street.

So, in Korean traditionally the two syllables they each mean something different and Ji means, like, smart or wise. And Young means, like, brave or courageous and strong. But we were looking it up and guess what? Ji also means sesame.

— Ji Young

The character is just 7 years old, but she has unique hobbies of skateboarding and playing the electric guitar. One of her favorite artists is the teenage punk rock band The Linda Lindas. She shared that she hopes to meet them one day.

The Linda Lindas because they’re so cool… And they rock out and they’re cool girls and most of them are Asian. They’re my heroes. If we can get the Linda Lindas on ‘Sesame Street,’ I would show them around.

— Ji Young

“Sesame Street” characters, including Ji Young. | PBS

Ji Young’s puppeteer is Kathleen Kim, also Korean American and started puppetry almost a decade ago. Her life changed when she entered the Sesame Street workshop. She couldn’t have imagined that it would lead to this one day, being in control of such a historical character.

I feel like I have a lot of weight that maybe I’m putting on myself to teach these lessons and be this representative that I did not have as a kid.

— Kathleen Kim

Kathleen Kim operating Ji Young. | Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

While she’s been nervous about bringing Ji Young to life, she has a team behind her supporting her. Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, the puppeteer behind Abby Cadabby, told her, “It’s not about us … It’s about this message.”

Sesame Street hopes to make a positive change in the world during a time of increase of hate crimes against Asians in the United States since COVID-19. Executive vice-president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame StreetKay Wilson Stallings, shared that they have been thinking about ways on how they could “meet the moment.” Out of this was born two new task forces, one focusing on content and another on diversity.

I remember like the Atlanta shootings and how terrifying that was for me… My one hope, obviously, is to actually help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognize it and then speak out against it. But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.

— Kathleen Kim

Protest after the Atlanta shooting. | Time Magazine

Sesame Workshop established Coming Together, “a multi-year initiative addressing how to talk to children about race, ethnicity, and culture.” As a result, we’ve been introduced to a new Black muppet, 8-year-old Tamir, who has openly talked about racism, and now Ji Young, the first Asian American muppet.

When we knew we were going to be doing this work that was going to focus on the Asian and Pacific Islanders experience, we of course knew we needed to create an Asian muppet as well.

— Kay Wilson Stallings

Bernie (left) and Ji Young (right). | PBS

The new muppets have been in the works for a while, but not as long as others. Most of the time, the process takes years, but for these, just months. That doesn’t mean that the same amount of care hasn’t been put into it. Sesame Street‘s “culture trust,” consisting of employees and experts, has provided thoughts and feedback first.

Tamir | PBS

And, of course, puppeteer Kim has also assured that Ji Young is not just a stereotype or “generically pan-Asian.”

Because that’s something that all Asian Americans have experienced. They kind of want to lump us into this monolithic ‘Asian.’ So it was very important that she was specifically Korean American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here.

— Kathleen Kim

Ji Young | PBS

Last year, Tamir introduced the concept of being a “good upstander” during Sesame Street‘s The Power of We special. Ji Young, too, will continue to reinforce this message for young viewers.

Being an upstander means you point out things that are wrong or something that 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’re from. We want our audience to understand they can be upstanders.

— Kay Wilson Stallings

“Sesame Street” characters. | PBS

Sesame Street will also not shy away from the struggles that many Asian Americans face. For example, in “See Us Coming Together,” Ji Young is told “to go back home.” 

Co-executive director of Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, Vanessa Leung, has shared excitement for the representation that Ji Young will bring. While the organization was not involved in developing this new character, they have previously been a part of other anti-racism content.

It sparks curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our community, the beauty in the diversity of our community.

— Vanessa Leung

From left: Ji Young, Simu Liu, and Big Bird. | PBS

We can expect Ji Young to be a prominent new cast member for the 53rd season; she won’t be a one-time appearance. Ji Young will actively be looking to make new friends and, of course, share her culture, oftentimes through food. She cooks with her halmoni (grandmother), one dish being tteokbokki.

“Sesame Street” characters cooking. | PBS

We can look forward to an official introduction of Ji Young during See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special. Lots of our favorite celebrities will also be featured during it, such as Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu, Japanese Olympic tennis player Naomi Osaka, and Indian American model, writer, and TV host Padma Lakshmi. The special will premiere on Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max and PBS.

Source: NowThis News

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