What’s in the name Well, for Ji-Young, the new Muppet resident of “Sesame Street,” her name is a symbol of where she intends to live.
“So, in Korean, two traditionally syllables have a different meaning and Ji is like, smart, intelligent. And Young means, like, daring or brave and strong,” Ji-Young explained in a recent interview. “But we’re looking for it and guess what? G is also 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 skateboarding. The children’s TV show, which first aired 52 years ago this month, gave the Associated Press a first glimpse of its adorable new residents.
Ji-Young is formally introduced in “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special.” Simu Liu, Padma Lakshmi and Naomi Osaka are among the celebrity featured, leaving Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, “Sesame Street” social media platforms and local PBS stations.
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Some of Ji-Young’s personality comes from her puppet. Kathleen Kim, 41, and a Korean American, was involved in puppetry in her 30s. In 2014, she was accepted to the “Sesame Street” workshop. It evolved into mentorship and became part of the team the following year. It was a dream come true to be a puppet at a show where Kim watched growing up. But helping to shape the original muppet is a whole other achievement.
“I feel like I put a lot of weight on myself to teach these lessons and become this representative that I didn’t have as a child,” Kim said. But Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, a fellow dollman who manages Abby Cadabby, reminded her, “It’s not about us … it’s about this message.”
Ji-Young’s existence is the culmination of a lot of debate after the events of 2020 – the death of George Floyd and the anti-Asian hate events. Like most companies, “Sesame Street” reflects “how it meets the moment,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the former nonprofit organization of “Sesame Street.”
The Sesame Workshop established two task forces – one to look at its content and the other to see its own diversity. Developed by Coming Together, is a multi-year initiative that addresses how to talk to children about race, ethnicity and culture.
One result is 8-year-old Tamir. Although not the first black muppet on the show, he was one of the first to use it to talk about issues like racism.
“When we knew we were going to do this work that focused on the experience of Asian and Pacific Islanders, we knew we had to create an Asian muppet,” Stallings said.
These new Muppets – their personalities and their looks – were significantly built in a month’s time. The process usually takes at least a couple of years. Stallings said there is a cross-section of outside experts and employees known as the “culture trust” that weighs every aspect of the new Muppet.
For Kim, it was important that Ji-Young “not usually be Pan-Asian.
“Because that’s something that all Asian Americans have experienced. They want to add us to this monolithic ‘Asian’,” Kim said. “So it was very important for her to be specifically Korean American, not usually Korean, but she was born here.”
One of the things that Ji-Young can help teach children is how to be a good “upstart.” “Sesame Street” first used the term in its “The Power of We” TV special last year, featuring Tamir.
“Being a top person means that something you do wrong or do or say is based on their negative attitude towards the person because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or where they come from,” Stallings said. “We want our audience to understand that they can be top notch.”
In “See Us Coming Together,” Sesame Street is preparing for a neighborhood day where everyone shares food, music or dance from their culture. Ji-Young gets upset after a child says outside the screen that he is “back home”, which is usually a shame on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But other Asian American residents of Sesame Street, guest stars, and friends like Elmo are in power after she promises to be someone else.
The fact that Ji-Young was created to combat anti-Asian sentiment makes her somehow more special to Kim.
“I remember the Atlanta shootings and how horrible it was for me,” Kim said. “One of my hopes, obviously, is to help teach what racism is, to help teach children to recognize it and to speak out against it.
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Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the Association of Asian American Children and Families, is excited about Ji-Young. The firm was not involved in the formation of Ji-Young but had previously consulted on the issue of anti-racism for the Sesame Workshop. Leung said that it is important for Asian American families, especially immigrant families, to reflect on an organization like “Sesame Street.”
“This instills a sense of curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our community, the beauty of the diversity of our community,” said Leung.
Stallings promised that G-Young will be more present throughout the 53rd season of the show next year. She cannot be used solely for the matter of racial justice. They pop up in various digital shows, live-action and animated.
As a new kid on the street, Ji-Young is looking forward to showing her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture such as food. She loves to cook dishes like tetokbokki (chewy rice cake) with her Halmoni (grandmother). And she already has a “Sesame Street” friend who wants to model.
“I’d love to try it,” said Ernie, who interviewed Ji-Young. “You know, I’ve tried Bulgogi. I really like Bulgogi. I guess maybe old friend Burt doesn’t try Korean food.”
G-Young, who has already made several celebrity friends on “Sesame Street”, really wants to meet?
“Linda Lindas because they’re so cool,” Ji-Young said, referring to the teen punk rock band. “And they rock out and they’re cool girls and most of them are Asian. They’re my heroes. If we can get Linda Lindas on ‘Sesame Street,’ I’ll show them around.”