Posted on November 16, 2021

Sesame Street Debuts Ji-Young, First Asian American Muppet

Terry Tang, Associated Press, November 15, 2021


At only seven 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. {snip}


Some of Ji-Young’s personality comes from her puppeteer, Kathleen Kim, 41, who is also Korean American. Kim got into puppetry in her 30s. In 2014, she was accepted into a Sesame Street workshop. That evolved into a mentorship, and she became part of the team the following year.


Ji-Young’s existence is the culmination of a lot of discussions after the events of 2020 — George Floyd‘s death and instances of anti-Asian hate. Like a lot of companies, Sesame Street reflected on how it could “meet the moment,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice-president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street.

Sesame Workshop established two task forces — one to look at its content and another to look at its own diversity. What developed was Coming Together, a multi-year initiative addressing how to talk to children about race, ethnicity and culture.

One result was eight-year-old Tamir. While not the show’s first Black muppet, he was one of the first used to talk about subjects like racism.

“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,” Stallings said.


For Kim, it was crucial that Ji-Young 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,”‘ 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 “upstander.” Sesame Street first used the term on its The Power of We TV special last year, which featured Tamir.

“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 colour of their skin or the language they speak or where they’re from,” Stallings said. “We want our audience to understand they can be upstanders.”


In See Us Coming TogetherSesame Street is preparing for Neighbour Day where everyone shares food, music or dance from their culture. Ji-Young becomes upset after a kid, off screen, tells her “to go back home,” an insult commonly flung at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But she feels empowered after Sesame Street‘s other Asian American 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 ways.

“I remember, like, the Atlanta shootings, and how terrifying that was for me,” Kim said. “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.”