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."
Keep scrolling for a look back at 52 years of "Sesame Street" history
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 multi-year 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.
"When we knew we were going to be doing this work that was going to focus on the Asian and Pacific Islanders experience, we of course knew we needed to create an Asian muppet as well," Stallings said.
These newer muppets — their personalities and their looks — were remarkably constructed in a matter of a months. The process normally takes at least a couple of years. There are outside experts and a cross-section of employees known as the "culture trust" who weigh in on every aspect of a new muppet, Stallings said.
For Kim, it was crucial that 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,'" Kim said. "So it was very important that she was specifically Korean American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here."
One thing Ji-Young will help teach children is how to be a good "upstander." "Sesame Street" first used the term on its "The Power of We" TV special last year, which featured Tamir.
"Being an upstander means you point out things that are wrong or something that someone does or says that is based on their negative attitude towards the person because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or where they're from," Stallings said. "We want our audience to understand they can be upstanders."
In "See Us Coming Together," Sesame Street is preparing for Neighbor Day where everyone shares food, music or dance from their culture. Ji-Young becomes upset after a kid, off screen, tells her "to go back home," an insult commonly flung at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But she feels empowered after Sesame Street's other Asian American residents, guest stars and friends like Elmo assure her that she belongs as much as anyone else.
The fact that Ji-Young was created to counter anti-Asian sentiment makes her more special to Kim in some ways.
"I remember like the Atlanta shootings and how terrifying that was for me," Kim said. "My one hope, obviously, is to actually help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognize it and then speak out against it. But then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV."
Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, is excited about Ji-Young. The organization was not involved in Ji-Young's creation but previously consulted on anti-racism content for Sesame Workshop. It matters when Asian American families, especially with many of them being immigrant families, can see themselves reflected in an institution like "Sesame Street," Leung said.
"It sparks curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our community, the beauty in the diversity of our community," Leung said.
Ji-Young will be heavily present throughout the show's 53rd season next year, Stallings reassured. She also won't just be utilized for content related to racial justice. She will pop up in various digital programs, live-action and animated.
As the new kid on the street, Ji-Young is looking forward to showing her friends and neighbors aspects of Korean culture such as the food. She loves cooking dishes like tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes) with her halmoni (grandmother). And she already has one "Sesame Street" friend who wants a sample.
"I would love to try it," said Ernie, who joined Ji-Young's interview. "You know, I've tried bulgogi. I really like bulgogi. I'm gonna guess that maybe old buddy Bert has not tried Korean food."
Having already made several famous friends on "Sesame Street," is there anyone Ji-Young still really wants to meet?
"The Linda Lindas because they're so cool," Ji-Young said, referring to the teenage punk rock band. "And they rock out and they're cool girls and most of them are Asian. They're my heroes. If we can get the Linda Lindas on 'Sesame Street,' I would show them around."
52 years of 'Sesame Street' history
1969: How to get to 'Sesame Street'
1970: The brain and the mind
1971: Yip hooray for new characters
1972: 'Sesame Street' is now in 1, 2, 3 countries
1973: 'Sesamstrasse' launches in Germany
1974: Learning the value of varying perspectives
1975: What lies beyond the borders of 'Sesame Street'
1976: Expanding the scope of women on 'Sesame Street'
1977: From 'Sesame Street' to Hawaii
1978: 'Sesame Street' on-site
1979: Guests from far, far away
1980: Safety first, always
1981: A different way of seeing the world
1982: Bittersweet feelings
1983: Confronting death in real life
1984: Pop culture is built into the curriculum
1985: A year of milestones
1986: Math in the real world
1987: A 'Sesame Street' marriage
1988: Where do babies come from?
1990: Being proud of all that makes you, you
1991: Celebrating Native American culture
1992: Celebrating Latino culture
1993: Change is around the corner
1994: 'Sesame Street' in conflict zones
1995: Accommodating non-linguistic learners
1996: Handling times of uncertainty
1997: 'Slimey to the Moon'
1998: Welcome to 'Elmo’s World'
1999: Mastering conflict and computers
2000: The value in creating anything
2001: Dealing with a national tragedy
2002: Cultural acceptance is borderless
2003: Traction Jackson
2004: C is for...carrots?
2005: Not all families look the same
2006: Resources for family deployment
2007: Letters lead to words
2008: Everything old is new again
2009: 40 years of bringing good to the planet
2010: We all love a positive self-image
2011: An exploration of STEM
2012: STEM becomes STEAM
2013: Dealing with incarceration
2014: Recognize and regulate
2015: Honing in on kindness
2016: Meet Zari, the first Afghan Muppet
2017: Meet Julia, the first Muppet with autism
2018: Lily and the 'Sesame Street' in Communities Program
2019: Celebrating 50 years of tackling problems big and small
2020: 'Sesame Street' partners with CNN for town hall on racism
2021: 'Sesame Street' introduces two new Black characters
Ernie, a muppet from the popular children's series "Sesame Street," appears with new character Ji-Young, the first Asian American muppet, on the set of the long-running children's program in New York on Nov. 1, 2021. Ji-Young is Korean American and has two passions: rocking out on her electric guitar and skateboarding.