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This 'Sesame Street' kid is now the Muppeteer for its first Asian American character

Ernie, a Muppet from the popular children's series <em>Sesame Street</em>, 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.
Noreen Nasir
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.

Updated November 25, 2021 at 8:03 AM ET

Sesame Street's first Asian American Muppet character is debuting on Thanksgiving in a special episode celebrating diversity in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

Ji-Young, the 7-year-old Korean American Muppet, is brought to life by puppeteer Kathleen Kim. Kim, whose parents are Korean immigrants, told NPR's Michel Martin that she learned English by watching Sesame Street.

"I feel like it's a common story of ... kids of immigrants. And Sesame Street was my bread and butter. I loved it. It's what inspired me to go into production. The dream was always to be a Muppeteer," she said.

After a time of enjoying puppetry as a hobby, Kim was accepted into a Sesame Street puppetry workshop in 2014.

Ji-Young's character is part of a larger racial justice initiative from Sesame Workshop called "Coming Together," which is meant to teach children about race, identity and culture.

Kim noted, though, that "the sort of genesis of Ji-Young was accelerated with the rise in hate crimes against Asians this year, and Sesame knew that they want to do a special sort of celebrating in the AAPI community, and it sort of came out of that."

Since even puppets are not free of controversy these days, Martin asked about the criticism of the move from both the right and the left, with some arguing that Muppets shouldn't have a race at all, and others bristling at the idea that people need to be taught about race rather than teach themselves.

"It's definitely a topic that was heavily discussed [by Sesame Workshop]," Kim said. "We've had so many different types of reactions to Ji-Young. And I will say that they all sort of validate the need for her to be at Sesame Street and bring that representation that hasn't always been there for the Asian American community."

For her part, Kim said she has chosen to "focus on the overwhelming positive response that we've had from everybody, especially the Asian American community, who feel suddenly seen by this brand that they have loved and looked up to for generations."

While Ji-Young is newsworthy now, Kim hopes that for her 6-year-old daughter's generation, "it's not extraordinary at all that we'll be able to see, you know, more representation in the media that they take in."

Thursday's special starts with Ji-Young being told to "go back home," Kim said, addressing the "othering that Asian Americans feel, even if we've never lived anywhere else, that we don't belong here in our own country."

But she added that she also wants the character to be fun and widely relatable — embraced for her love of skateboarding and rock 'n' roll.

The Thanksgiving episode is airing on HBO Max, PBSKids and on Sesame Street's Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channels.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.