Sesame Street introduces first Asian American puppet

The Korean American character Ji-Young will appear on a US TV special.

US children’s TV show Sesame Street is introducing its first Asian American puppet.

The character, Ji-Young, is Korean American and enjoys playing guitar and skateboarding.

The show, which first aired 52 years ago this month, will formally introduce Ji-Young in See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special.

Actor Simu Liu and tennis star Naomi Osaka are among the celebrities who will also appear in the TV special, which will drop on HBO Max, social media platforms and other stations on the US Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Ernie and Ji-Young from Sesame Street
Ernie and Ji-Young on-set (AP)

Ji-Young’s existence is the culmination of discussions by producers after the rise in anti-Asian hate last year.

The character’s puppeteer, 41-year-old Kathleen Kim, is Korean American.

She first got into puppetry in her 30s, and was accepted into a Sesame Street workshop in 2014.

This evolved into a mentorship, before she became part of the team the following year.

Naomi Osaka
Tennis star Naomi Osaka will be one of the guest celebrities on the show (David Davies/PA)

Being a puppeteer on a show Kim watched growing up was a dream come true, but she is aware of the responsibilities involved in bringing Ji-Young to life.

She said: “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.”

Ji-Young’s existence is the culmination of discussions following the events of 2020, particularly George Floyd’s death and anti-Asian hate incidents.

Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice-president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street, said that like a lot of companies, Sesame Street reflected on how it could “meet the moment”.

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 the character, Tamir. While not the show’s first black puppet, he was one of the first used to talk about subjects like racism.

Stallings said: “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.”

These newer puppets – their personalities and their looks – were remarkably constructed in a matter of 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 should 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 Together, Sesame Street is preparing for Neighbour Day where everyone shares food, music or dance from their culture.

Simu Liu
Marvel movies star Simu Liu will also appear on the show (James Manning/PA)

Ji-Young becomes upset after a child, off screen, tells her “to go back home”. 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 recognise it and then speak out against it.

“But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalises seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.”

Ji-Young will be present throughout the show’s 53rd season next year, Stallings said. She will not just be utilised for content related to racial justice, and will pop up in various digital programmes, both live-action and animated.

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