Ji-Young is the first Asian American muppet to appear on the children’s show since it premiered on PBS 52 years ago.
According to Sesame Street producer Sesame Workshop, Ji-Young is a 7-year-old spunky Korean American who loves rocking out on her electric guitar, playing soccer, and rolling along the street on her skateboard. Extremely close with her family and proud of her Korean heritage, Ji-Young enjoys playing music with her grandma and cooking her favorite food – tteokboki. Ji-Young’s family eats dinner together at the kitchen table every night, chatting in both Korean and English.
Ji-Young’s personality and cultural background are partly based on her 41-year-old Korean American puppeteer, Kathleen Kim. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kim said that it was personally significant for her that Ji-Young is not “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 explained. “So it was very important that she was specifically Korean American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here.”
Ji-Young was created as part of Sesame Street’s response to George Floyd’s death and anti-Asian hate incidents that made headlines in 2020. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice-president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, said the show reflected on how it could “meet the moment” following that string of terrible news.
“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 told the Associated Press.
Stallings added that Ji-Young will help teach children how to be a good “upstander.” “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,” Stallings explained. “We want our audience to understand they can be upstanders.”
Incidents like the Atlanta shootings were terrifying for Kim, so the fact that Ji-Young was created to counter anti-Asian sentiment makes the muppet extra special for her. “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 told the Associated Press. “But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.”
Though she has already made her Sesame Street debut in a YouTube video released earlier this week, Ji-Young will be formally introduced as the newest character of the franchise in the upcoming See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special.
In the new special, Sesame Street residents are preparing for Neighbor 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 thrown at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She, however, 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 special’s guest stars include actors Simu Liu and Anna Cathcart, comic book artist Jim Lee, chef Melissa King, television personality Padma Lakshmi, and athlete Naomi Osaka.
“It’s a powerful thing when kids see people like themselves represented on screen and in stories – it supports them as they figure out who they are and who they want to be,” Alan Muraoka, longtime Sesame Street cast member and co-director of See Us Coming Together, said in a statement. “We can’t wait for families to get to know Ji-Young – in this special and in future seasons of Sesame Street – and celebrate some of the Asian and Pacific Islander people in our neighborhood.”
See Us Coming Together will debut on Thursday, November 25th on HBO Max, PBS Kids, and Sesame Street’s YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram channels.