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'Sesame Street' debuts Asian American muppet

New muppet Ji-Young, the first Asian American muppet,

New muppet Ji-Young, the first Asian American muppet, appears on the set of the long-running children's program "Sesame Street" in New York. Credit: AP / Noreen Nasir

What's in a name? Well, for Ji-Young, the newest muppet resident of "Sesame Street," her name is a sign she was meant to live there.

"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," Ji-Young explained during a recent interview. "But we were looking it up and guess what? Ji also means sesame."

At only 7 years old, Ji-Young is making history as the first Asian American muppet in the "Sesame Street" canon. She is Korean American and has two passions: rocking out on her electric guitar and skateboarding. The children’s TV program, which first aired 52 years ago this month, gave The Associated Press a first look at its adorable new occupant.

Ji-Young will formally be 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 drop Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, "Sesame Street" social media platforms and on local PBS stations.

Some of Ji-Young’s personality comes from her puppeteer. Kathleen Kim, 41 and Korean American, got into puppetry in her 30s. In 2014, she was accepted into a "Sesame Street" workshop. That evolved into a mentorship and becoming part of the team the following year. Being a puppeteer on a show Kim watched growing up was a dream come true. But helping shape an original muppet is a whole other feat.

"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 said. But fellow puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph — who performs Abby Cadabby — reminded her, "It’s not about us ... It’s about this message."

Ji-Young’s existence is the culmination of a lot of discussions after the events of 2020 — George Floyd’s death and anti-Asian hate incidents. Like a lot of companies, "Sesame Street" reflected on how it could "meet the moment," said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind "Sesame Street."

Sesame Workshop established two task forces — one to look at its content and another to look at its own diversity. What developed was Coming Together, a multiyear initiative addressing how to talk to children about race, ethnicity and culture.

One result was 8-year-old Tamir. While not the show's first Black muppet, he was one of the first used to talk about subjects like racism.

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