“Sesame Street” debuts an Asian American doll
what’s in a name? Well, for Ji Young, the newest resident of Sesame Street, her name is a sign that she was meant to live there.
“So, traditionally in Korean, both syllables mean something different and Ji means, like, clever or wise. And yong means, like, brave or brave and strong,” Ji Young explained during a recent interview. “But we were looking for it and guess what? Gee also means sesame.”
At just seven years old, Ji Young is making history as the first Asian-American doll on the Sesame Street canon. 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 a first look at its adorable new incumbent.
Ji-Young will be officially featured in “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special.” Simo Liu, Padma Lakshmi, and Naomi Osaka are among the celebrities appearing in the special, which will air Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max and “Sesame Street” social media platforms and on local PBS stations.
Some of Ji Young’s character comes from her own doll engine. Kathleen Kim, 41, and a Korean American, got into the art of puppetry in her thirties. In 2014, she was accepted into the workshop “Sesame Street”. This evolved into mentorship and became part of the team the following year. Being a puppeteer on one of the shows Kim watched growing up was a dream come true. But helping to shape an original doll is another feat entirely.
“I feel like I have a lot of weight to probably put on myself to teach these lessons and to be that actor that I didn’t have when I was a kid,” Kim said. 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 presence was the culmination of many discussions after the events of 2020 – the death of George Floyd and the anti-Asian hate incidents. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of production and creativity at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, like so many companies, said Sesame Street reflected how it could “meet the moment.”
Sesame Workshop has created two sets of work teams – one to consider its content and the other to consider its diversity. What has been developed is Coming Together, a multi-year initiative that addresses how we talk to children about race, ethnicity, and culture.
One of the results was 8-year-old Tamer. Although he wasn’t the first black doll on the show, he was one of the first users to talk about topics like racism.
“When we knew we were going to do this work that was going to focus on the Asia-Pacific experience, we knew of course that we needed to create an Asian doll as well,” Stallings said.
These new dolls – their personalities and looks – were remarkably built in a matter of months. The process usually takes at least two years. Stallings said there are outside experts and a cross-section of employees known as “cultural trusts” who influence every aspect of the new marionettes.
For Kim, it was important that Ji Young was not “generally Asian”.
“Because that’s something that all Asian Americans have experienced. Kim said they kind of wanted us to be brought together in this homogeneous ‘Asian’.”
The only thing Ji-Young will help teach kids is how to be a good “pro”. Sesame Street first used the term in its television special The Power of We last year, in which Tamir appeared.
“Being a pro means that you are pointing out wrong things or something someone does or says based on their negative attitude toward the person because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, or where they come from,” she said. “We want our audience to understand that they can be supporters.”
In See Us Coming Toging Together, Sesame Street prepares for Neighbor’s Day as everyone shares food, music or dance from their culture. Ji Young is upset after, off-screen, a child tells her, “Go home,” an insult usually directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But she feels empowered after other Asian-American residents on Sesame Street, guest stars, and friends like Elmo assure her that she belongs to everyone else.
The fact that Ji-Young was created to counteract anti-Asian sentiment makes her even more special to Kim in some ways.
“I remember like the shootings in Atlanta and how terrifying it was for me,” Kim said. “My only hope, obviously, is to 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 for Ji-Young is that it makes it normal to see different types of kids on TV.”
Vanessa Young, co-executive director of the Alliance for Asian American Children and Families, is excited about Ji Young. The organization was not involved in creating Ji-Young but was previously consulted about anti-racist content for Sesame Workshop. Leung said it’s important for Asian American families, especially with many of them being immigrant families, to see it reflected in an institution like Sesame Street.
“It sparks curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our society, and the beauty in the diversity of our society,” Leung said.
Stallings assured that Ji Young will be a strong presence throughout the new season. Nor will it be used solely for racial justice related content. She will appear on many digital, live action and animation programmes.
As the new kid on the street, Ji Young looks forward to showing her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture like food. She loves to cook dishes like tteokbokki (chewable rice cakes) with her grandmother Halmoni (grandmother). She already has one friend from Sesame Street who wants a sample.
“I’d love to give it a try,” said Ernie, who joined Ji Young’s interview. “You know, I’ve tried bulgogi. I really like bulgogi. I’m going to guess old friend Burt might not have tried Korean food.”
Having already made many famous friends on ‘Sesame Street’, is there still anyone Ji Young really wants to meet?
“Linda Linda because she’s so cool,” Ji Young said, referring to the punk rock band. “And they shine and they are great girls and they are mostly Asian. They are my heroes. If we can get Linda Lindas on Sesame Street, I’ll show them around.”
Terry Tang is a member of the Race and Ethnicity staff at The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP
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