Sesame Street introduces its first Asian-American muppet

Ji-young with her puppeteer Kathleen Kim, who is Korean American. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYT) - Sesame Street is welcoming its first Asian-American muppet to the neighbourhood. Ji-young, a Korean American seven-year-old who loves playing her electric guitar and skateboarding, will make her debut next week.

She will play a role in countering anti-Asian bias and harassment at a time of heightened awareness around the issue.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces Sesame Street, said it created Ji-young to support families of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage as part of its racial justice initiative, Coming Together.

Sesame Workshop introduced the initiative in the summer of 2020, after violence targeting Asians and Asian Americans surged during the pandemic.

Sesame Street has been on air for more than 50 years, but Ji-young is its first Asian American muppet. The show has had human characters and guests of Asian descent, including Alan Muraoka, who is Japanese American and owns the fictional Hooper's Store.

Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and an expert on race and racism in Hollywood, said that when she first immigrated to the United States from Taiwan at age five, she learned more English from Sesame Street than from the English as a second language classes at her school.

The show was more diverse than most children's programming of the time, but professor Yuen said it was missing characters who looked like her when she was growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"I think having this muppet who is more culturally specific and is able to speak another language, especially in the current time of rising anti-Asian hate, is so essential to representation," she said.

Ji-young will be introduced on Sesame Street during a special episode on Thanksgiving Day (Nov 25) on HBO Max and on local PBS stations. The show, See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special, will also feature actor Simu Liu and tennis player Naomi Osaka.

In the special episode, the residents of Sesame Street celebrate Neighbour Day, a community event with food, music and games. Someone off screen tells Ji-young to "go back home", and then the other residents, guest stars and friends, including Elmo, offer her support.

Ji-young's puppeteer is Kathleen Kim, who is Korean American.

"My one hope, obviously, is to actually help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognise it and then speak out against it," Kim, 41, told the Associated Press. "But then my other hope for Ji-young is that she just normalises seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV."

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