It’s been six months since “Sesame Street” cast the series’ first Asian American Muppet, Ji-Young, a 7-year-old girl who loves her electric guitar and skateboard.
“The most surprising part of this whole introduction of Ji-Young to the world has been this insane outpouring of support from the Asian American community and everyone else,” said puppeteer Kathleen Kim, a 42-year-old New York mother. “Asian American parents my age who grew up without much representation, it’s something we didn’t even ask for or expect; we kind of didn’t even know to ask for it because it was completely absent from our I didn’t expect this kind of reaction to Ji-Young, but it makes sense Having a Korean child with a hyphenated name (to be) loved and embraced by her friends at “Sesame Street,” this American institution, I think makes us, as the Asian American diaspora, feel finally seen and validated.”
Kim, who is also Korean-American, recently opened up about her new role as a puppeteer with USA TODAY editorial board members Kristen DelGuzzi, Jaden Amos and Thuan Le Elston.
Their conversation has been edited for clarity, length and flow.
Thuan: How did you get into puppetry?
I fell into it. I’ve always been into puppets and, you know, I grew up on “Sesame Street” and I love Muppets and all, but I never saw myself as an artist and I certainly never thought to puppetry as something normal people had to do for a source of income. But 10, 12 years ago, my husband and I took a puppet class for fun, and then that led to other projects. The teacher in this class took me on different pilots and shows. I considered it more of a hobby. Then in 2014, Sesame Workshop organized an audition. I walked in and I guess they liked me, so they kept bringing me back to grow and teach me. Then last year, Ji-Young arrived.
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Thuan: Where are you from?
Right here in New York, where we’re shooting “Sesame Street.” I was born in Queens and raised mostly on Long Island.
Thuan: Now that you’ve spent a few months with Ji-Young, I read somewhere where you said it was great that she was Korean American and you were Korean American, so you know a lot about that. what Korean American children experience. , but you will have to learn Ji-Young as you go. What have you learned?
The Asian American community is sometimes lumped together into one pan-Asian personality, so it was really important to me and Ji-Young not to just say – you know, she doesn’t represent all Korean Americans, just like I do not do it. represent all Korean Americans. She represents herself above all else, and her Korean heritage is just a big part of that. And so I’m not only informing him of my experiences as a Korean American, but I’m tapping into my Korean family and friends growing up. For the most part, it’s me just trying to figure out who Ji-Young is, in particular, before trying to make every Asian kid out of her. It’s just Ji-Young. And it’s still a process to find out who she is, but we’re having fun along the way.
Thuan: Is there anything you want Ji-Young to work on? What do you see long-term for Ji-Young?
I had this amazing opportunity and right now I’m just trying to focus on the present. I just want to keep getting to know her and make her a stronger, more lovable character. And I hope she’s not just for Korean American kids, but for everyone because she’s like a fun little rock ‘n’ roll girl.
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Jaden: I was obsessed with “Sesame Street” as a kid – obsessed. And I’m Korean, so I’m so excited for you. By the way, I don’t know you but I’m so proud of you.
That’s so sweet of you to say that!
Jaden: That’s the question – Is that you? Is it mostly you? Does that make sense?
I feel like she gave me more self-confidence. That’s what I’m trying to exploit. Myself and the writers of “Sesame” and everyone here, we’re all trying to work together to find out who Ji-Young is.
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Jaden: Are there any other media characters, Korean characters, or Korea or America that inspired her?
I don’t think she’s pulling from anyone specifically Korean. I think, like, the Linda Lindas, this teenage punk rock band that kind of exploded last year, that kind of gave me permission to make it super awesome. I am inspired by my daughter. Even though she is 6 years old, she makes me laugh more than anyone and thus gives me permission to be funny and really go for it with Ji-Young.
Thuan: Does your daughter know what you’re doing?
Katherine: She does it a lot. I was pregnant with her on my very first “Sesame Street” day, so she doesn’t really know a world where (“Sesame Street Muppet) Abby Cadabby isn’t on speed dial on her birthday.
Thuan: But she knows you’re behind Ji-Young?
She does, and she’s proud that Ji-Young is Korean like us.
Kristen: My daughters are 12 and 14. Watching “Sesame Street” with them, it was always so remarkable to see how adults can create content for little people that resonates so much and is so relevant. I watched “Sesame Street” when I was little. What’s the special sauce that keeps you doing this, reinventing and staying relevant for kids?
Beginning in 1969, early on, “Sesame Street” was one of the most sought-after children’s programs, and it continues to be. There is an important consideration that goes into the program and research to ensure that we stay up to date. Everything we do in terms of racial literacy and community is just an evolution of the message that “Sesame Street” has always had from the very beginning. And it doesn’t hurt that, all puppeteers and performers, we all have a very straight and short heart line with our inner child. We are all very stupid. It’s also a big important part of being a performer on “Sesame Street.”
Thuan: Do you have any parting thoughts?
The most surprising part of this whole introduction of Ji-Young to the world was like this insane outpouring of support from the Asian American community and everyone else. We were on a set, there was a 6-year-old Korean girl and she just ran up to Ji-Young and hugged her. It was incredibly touching. But what really got to me was when her parents didn’t realize Ji-Young was on set and they saw her. And this little girl’s mom – about my age – and she just had tears in her eyes. She said, “Can I just touch her?” And she just held Ji-Young’s little puppet hands and looked at me and the producer next to me and said, “Thank you so much. She means so much.”
Asian American parents my age who grew up without much representation, this is something we didn’t even ask for or expect; we didn’t even know how to ask for it because it was completely absent from our childhood. I didn’t expect this kind of reaction to Ji-Young, but it makes sense. To have a Korean child with a hyphenated name (to be) loved and hugged by his friends on “Sesame Street”, this American institution, I think it makes us feel, as a native American diaspora Asian, finally seen and validated. It was very meaningful for everyone. I don’t take responsibility lightly; it is such an honor.