The beloved children’s show “Sesame Street” will formally introduce seven-year-old Ji-Young, the young muppet making history as the show’s first-ever Asian American, on Thanksgiving Day in an episode called “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special.”
Ji-Young, who is Korean American, was born out of the tumultuous events of 2020, including the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice-president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street,” said that like other companies, the children’s show’s creators had many discussions about how it could “meet the moment.”
To do so, the Sesame Workshop formed two task forces. One was responsible for looking at its content and the other was focused on studying its own diversity. The result was a multi-year initiative called “Coming Together,” which would address how to talk to children about race, ethnicity, and culture.
“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 at well,” Stallings explained.
Kathleen Kim, the 41-year-old Korean American puppeteer behind Ji-Young said that it was especially important for the new muppet to not be “generically pan Asian,” because “that’s something that all Asian Americans have experienced. They kind of want to lump us into this monolithic ‘Asian,’” she said. “So it was very important that she was specifically Korean American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here.”
Ji-Young’s character will help teach children what it means to be a good “upstander,” a term that was first introduced on “Sesame Street” on its “The Power of We” special last year, which featured another new muppet, eight-year-old Tamir (who is not the show’s first Black muppet, but one of the first who was used to address topics like racism).
“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,” said Stallings. “We want our audience to understand they can be upstanders.”
Ji-Young will not only be used to expand on content related to racial justice but will be heavily present throughout the new season, as well as featured in various digital programs both live-action and animated.
The young Korean American is excited to show her new friends and neighbors on “Sesame Street” some aspects of Korean culture, like the food. One of her favorite dishes to cook with her halmoni (grandmother) is tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes), which has already piqued another “Sesame Street” friend’s interest.
“I would love to try it,” Ernie said during an interview with Ji-Young. “You know, I’ve tried bulgogi. I really like bulgogi. I’m gonna guess that maybe old buddy Bert has not tried Korean food.”
For Kathleen Kim, Ji-Young represents an important learning opportunity for children everywhere. “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,” Kim said. “But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kinds of TV.”
Source image: Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop