‘Sesame Street’ debuts Asian-American snippets: AP exclusive

What’s in a name? Well, for “Sesame Street”‘s newest puppet resident Ji-Young, her name is a sign that she wants to live there.

“So in Korean tradition, two syllables each have different meanings and Ji means, like, smart or wise. And Young means, brave or courageous and strong,” Ji-Young explained in a recent interview. “But we looked it up and guess what? Ji also means sesame.”

At just 7 years old, Ji-Young made history as the first Asian-American puppeteer in the play “Sesame Street”. She is Korean-American and has two passions: playing electric guitar and skateboarding. The children’s TV show, which first aired 52 years ago this month, gave The Associated Press its first look at its adorable newcomer.

Ji-Young will be officially 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 air Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, the “Sesame Street” social media platforms and on PBS stations local.

Some of Ji-Young’s personality comes from her puppeteer. Kathleen Kim, 41 years old and Korean-American, entered the puppetry business in her 30s. In 2014, she was accepted into the “Sesame Street” studio. That evolved into a mentor and became part of the team the following year. Being a puppeteer on a show Kim watched growing up was a dream come true. But helping to shape an original puppet is another feat.

“I feel like I have a lot of weight that I’m probably putting on myself to teach these lessons and be the surrogate I didn’t have as a kid,” Kim said. But fellow puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph — performer Abby Cadabby — reminded her, “It’s not about us… It’s about this message.”

Ji-Young’s existence was the culmination of much discussion after the events of 2020 – the death of George Floyd and the anti-Asian incidents. Like many other companies, “Sesame Street” reflected on how it could “meet the right timing,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street,” said.

Sesame Workshop has set up two task forces – one to review its content and another to review its own diversity. What has evolved is Come Together, a multi-year initiative that addresses how to talk to children about race, ethnicity, and culture.

One result is 8-year-old Tamir. While not the show’s first black puppeteer, he was one of the first to be used to talk about topics like racism.

“When we knew we were going to be doing work that focused on the experiences of the people of Asia and the Pacific Islanders, of course we knew we needed to create an Asian puppet as well,” says Stallings.

These newer muppets – their character and appearance – have been dramatically built in just a month. This process usually takes at least a few years. There are outside experts and a section of staff known as a “credibility culture” who play a vital role in every aspect of a new puppet, Stallings said.

For Kim, it is important that Ji-Young is not “generally Asian”.

“Because that’s what all Asian Americans have been through,” Kim said. “They wanted to lump us into a ‘monolithic Asian’.” So it was very important that she was special. Korean-American, not only Korean in general, but she was born here.”

One thing Ji-Young will help teach children is how to be a good “doer”. “Sesame Street” first used the term in the TV special “Our Strength” last year, which featured Tamir.

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

In “See You Again,” Sesame Street is gearing up for Neighbors Day, where people share food, music, or dance from their culture. Ji-Young becomes upset after a child, off-screen, tells her to “go home,” an insult often hurled at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But she feels empowered after other Asian-American residents of Sesame Street, guest stars and friends like Elmo assure her she belongs to anyone else, too.

The fact that Ji-Young was made to counter anti-Asian sentiment makes her all the more special to Kim in a few ways.

“I vividly remember the Atlanta shooting and it was horrifying for me,” Kim said. “One of my hopes, obviously, is to really help teach what racism is, to help teach kids to be able to recognize it and then speak out against it. But my other hope is for Ji- Young is that she normalizes seeing these types of kids on TV.”

Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the Asian American Children and Families Coalition, is excited about Ji-Young. The organization was not involved in the creation of Ji-Young but has previously consulted on anti-racist content for Sesame Workshop. It’s important that Asian-American families, especially with many immigrant families, can find themselves reflected in an organization like “Sesame Street,” Leung said.

“It sparks curiosity and an early understanding of the diversity of our community, the beauty in our diversity,” says Leung.

Ji-Young will be heavily present during the show’s 53rd season next year, Stallings reassured. She also won’t just be used for racial justice related content. She will appear in various digital shows, live-action and animated.

As a new kid on the street, Ji-Young longs to show her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture, such as food. She loves to cook dishes like tteokbokki (tough rice cakes) with her grandmother (grandmother). And she had a “Sesame Street” friend who wanted to sample.

“I would love to try it,” said Ernie, who participated in the Ji-Young interview. “You know, I tried bulgogi. I really like bulgogi. I guess maybe old friend Bert hasn’t tried Korean food.”

Having made many famous friends on “Sesame Street”, is there anyone Ji-Young still really wants to meet?

“Linda Lindas because they’re so cool,” said Ji-Young, referring to the teen punk rock band. “And they’re explosive and they’re great girls and most of them are Asian. They’re my heroes. If we can get Linda Lindas on ‘Sesame Street,’ I’ll show them to them. around.”


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