Ji-Young Moves into the Sesame Street Neighborhood

by Timaya Pulliam ‘23

Ji-Young, the newest Sesame Street neighbor, debuted on November 25, making history on the franchise. The seven-year-old Korean-American appeared first on HBO Max’s See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special, becoming the first Asian-American muppet. “Coming Together” is a multi-year initiative formed to address the ways to speak to children about ethnicity, race, and culture.

Breaking her name down in Korean, Ji means “smart” and Young translates to “wise.” The new character was created due to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and more media coverage surrounding them. Alan Muraoka, who is the co-director of the show and has been on the cast since 1998 playing the owner of Mr. Hooper’s store explained the importance of Ji-Young to NBC’s TODAY. “Especially with both the pandemic and aftermath of anti-Asian American violence, it felt really necessary,” said Muraoka.

See Us Coming Together featured Ji-Young as a new member of Sesame Street who does not feel welcome after being told to “go back home,” meaning to Korea. Accompanied by Muraoka, Anna Cathcart, and muppets Elmo and Tamir (introduced in 2020 for “Sesame Street’s” first of many specials focused on racism and identity), Ji-Young went on a walk through Sesame Street to discover the importance of being proud of one’s self and culture. 

This experience included lessons about Asian and Pacific Islander foods and dances. There were also special appearances from actor and stuntman Simu Liu, who taught that representation is important for children to believe that they can be anything that they want. Another guest was the Publisher and Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, Jim Lee, who explained that as a Korean child he, like Ji-Young, often did not feel like he belonged.

Kathleen Kim, Ji-Young’s puppeteer, is Korean-American herself. Therefore, much of Ji-Young’s personality and experiences are based on Kim. When the “Coming Together” initiative began, Kim was given the opportunity to puppeteer and help develop Ji-Young.

With this responsibility, Kim wanted to create the representation that she did not have as a child on a show that she grew up watching. When designing Ji-Young, it was important to Kim and other creators in the Sesame Street workshop to not make the character a monolithic Asian, as they wanted to make it clear that though there are similarities in the experiences of all Asian-Americans, they should not all be put into one standardized group. There are unique parts of each nationality, ethnicity, and culture, and this is why it is specified that Ji-Young is Korean-American.

Like many other muppets, Ji-Young has many passions. Skateboarding and making moving music with her electric guitar are at the top of her talents. Above all else, Ji-Young is meant to be an upstander and to speak against negative stereotypes and attitudes, especially those toward race. In the new Sesame Street special, Ji-Young already showed how her passion for music helps her stand up for what is right.