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Ji Young, the first Asian American muppet, debuts on Sesame Street

What’s in a name? Well, for Ji Young, the new resident of the Sesame Street puppet theater, her name is a sign that she should have lived there.

“So, in Korean, traditionally, two syllables mean something different, and Ji means“ smart ”or“ wise ”. And Young means brave or brave and strong, “Ji Young explained in a recent interview. “But we were looking for this and you know what? Ji also means sesame. “

At just 7 years old, Ji Young made history as the first Asian American Muppet in the Sesame Street canon. She is Korean American and has two passions: playing the electric guitar and skateboarding. The children’s television program, which first aired 52 years ago this month, gave the Associated Press a first glimpse of the adorable new passenger.

Ji Young will be officially featured in Let’s See How We Get Together: Sesame Street Special. Shimu Liu, Padma Lakshmi and Naomi Osaka are among the celebrities who will appear in the special, which will air Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, Sesame Street social media platforms and local PBS stations.

Some of Ji Young’s personality stems from her puppeteer. Kathleen Kim, 41, is a Korean American who started puppetry at the age of 30. In 2014 she was admitted to the Sesame Street workshop. This turned into mentoring and became part of the team the following year. Becoming a puppeteer on a show that Kim watched as a child was a dream come true. But helping to shape the original doll is another matter entirely.

“I feel like I have a lot of weight, which I may be gaining to teach these lessons and be the kind of representative that I did not have as a child,” said Kim. But fellow puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who plays Abby Cadabby, reminded her, “It’s not about us … It’s about this message.”

Ji Young’s existence has been the culmination of much debate since the events of 2020 – the death of George Floyd and incidents of hatred of Asia. Like many other companies, Sesame Street pondered how to “meet the moment,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street.

At Sesame Workshop, two task forces have been created, one to explore the content and the other to explore its own diversity. As a result, the multi-year Coming Together initiative was developed to talk with children about race, ethnicity and culture.

One of the results was 8-year-old Tamir. While he was not the first black doll on the show, he was one of the first to talk about things like racism.

“When we knew we were going to do this work, which would focus on the experiences of the people of the Asia-Pacific region, we certainly knew that we also needed to create an Asian muppet,” Stallings said.

These new dolls – their characters and looks – were created in just a few months. The process usually takes at least a couple of years. There are external experts and various collaborators known as “cultural trust” who weigh every aspect of the new doll, Stallings said.

It was imperative for Kim that Ji Young was not “pan-Asian in general.”

“Because that’s what all Asian Americans have experienced. They want to unite us with this monolithic “Asian”, – said Kim. “So it was very important that she was Korean American and not Korean in general, but she was born here.”

Ji Yong will help teach children how to be a good “protector”. Sesame Street first used the term in its televised edition of The Power of Us last year, which featured Tamir.

“Being supportive means that you point out the wrong things or what someone does or says based on their negative attitude towards that person because of their skin color, the language they speak, or where they come from, ”Stallings said. “We want our audience to understand that they can be supporters.”

In Watch We Get Together, Sesame Street prepares for Neighbor’s Day, when everyone shares food, music, or dance from their culture. Ji Young gets upset after a child behind the scenes tells her to “come home,” an insult commonly inflicted on Asian Americans and Pacific Islans. But she feels elated after other Asian American residents, guest stars and friends like Elmo assure her that she belongs as much as everyone else.

The fact that Ji Young was created to counter anti-Asian sentiment in some ways makes her special to Kim.

“I remember the shooting in Atlanta and how terrible it was for me,” Kim said. “My only hope, obviously, is to really help teach children about racism, help teach children to recognize it and then act against it. But my other hope for Ji Young is that she just normalizes what different kids see on TV. ”

Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Children and Families, is delighted with Ji Young. The organization was not involved in Ji Young’s creation, but has previously consulted on anti-racist content for Sesame Workshop. It matters when Asian American families, especially many of whom are immigrant families, can see their reflection in an institution like Sesame Street, Leung said.

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