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Sesame Street: debut of its first Asian American muppet “Ji-Young”

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Ji-Young, the newest muppet resident of “Sesame Street,” her name is a sign she was meant to live there.

At only 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 program, which first aired 52 years ago this month, gave The Associated Press a first look at its adorable new occupant.

“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,” Ji-Young explained during a recent interview. “But we were looking it up and guess what? Ji also means sesame.”

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

Some of Ji-Young’s personality comes from her puppeteer. Kathleen Kim, 41 and Korean American, got into puppetry in her 30s. In 2014, she was accepted into a “Sesame Street” workshop. That evolved into a mentorship and becoming part of the team the following year. Being a puppeteer on a show Kim watched growing up was a dream come true. But helping shape an original muppet is a whole other feat.

“I feel like I have a lot of weight that maybe I’m putting on myself to teach these lessons and to be this representative that I did not have as a kid,” Kim said. But fellow puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph — who performs 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 discussions after the events of 2020 — George Floyd’s death and anti-Asian hate incidents. 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.”

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

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

“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.”

Ji-Young will be heavily present throughout the new season, Stallings reassured. She also won’t just be utilized for content related to racial justice. She will pop up in various digital programs, live-action and animated.

As the new kid on the street, Ji-Young is looking forward to showing her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture such as the food. She loves cooking dishes like tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes) with her halmoni (grandmother).

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