Sesame Street Makes History With First Asian-American Muppet

by Julie Scagell
Sesame Street/Youtube

Ji-Young will appear in a special airing on Thanksgiving day

Sesame Street is making history again by introducing the show’s first Asian American character. Ji-Young will appear in the show’s 53rd season, both on the show and in live-action performances. Her character was formalized after anti-Asian hate crimes increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ji-Young will make her debut on See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special, celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities and the diversity they bring, which will premiere on Thanksgiving on HBO Max. The new member will be greeted by celebrity guests including: Simu Liu, Padma Lakshmi, and Naomi Osaka.

Ji-Young is described as a seven-year-old Korean American child who is “looking forward to showing her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture such as the food. “She’s also a wiz in the kitchen and enjoys making tteokbokki (a.k.a. chewy rice cakes) with her grandmother,” as well as skateboarding.

“She’s a musician, she plays electric guitar, she’s a girl of the very modern American fabric,” Alan Muraoka, who plays the owner of Hooper’s Store on the show and is also Asian American, told NBC Asian America. “She recognizes the culture through her relatives — her grandmother, through her mother — and through the food she eats and loves.”

He also agrees her character is much needed after what’s transpired during the pandemic. “People are seeing the need for it now, especially with the rise in American violence,” Muraoka said. “I think it’s absolutely because the nation as a whole woke up.”

Kathleen Kim, Ji-Young’s puppeteer, who is also Korean American, has been working on Sesame Street since 2014. “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 told the Associated Press.

She also explained the meaning behind Ji-Young’s name. “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. But we were looking it up and guess what? Ji also means sesame.”

Kim also noted the importance of Ji-Young 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.'”

“Especially in the last two years with the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re at a very critical time that we need to talk about these issues that are both sensitive and hard at times,” Muraoka added. “It’s necessary for the next generation of kids to understand these issues because they’re real issues and they’re issues that I don’t see going away in the foreseeable future.”