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[Herald Interview] Meet Ji-Young, a Korean American ‘Sesame Street’ kid’s dream come true

Puppeteer Kathleen Kim is behind the beloved show’s first Asian American Muppet in its 52-year history



Kathleen
Kathleen "meeting" and performing Ji-Young for the first time(c)Sesame Workshop by photographer Zach Hyman
Most people have a favorite show they watched growing up. Something we woke up for every morning, gave us endless topics and stories to think and talk about, and perhaps gave our parents a break while we were completely immersed in what was happening on the television.

“Sesame Street” was ‘that show’ for 41-year-old Korean American Kathleen Kim. But for her, it wasn’t just a childhood TV program – it was more of a playground where she learned about the world and a teacher who taught her English. That’s why it was “a dream come true” when she became the puppeteer for the show’s first-ever Asian American character Ji-Young.

“I remember being able to tell the time because I knew what time ‘Sesame Street’ was on, even before I knew how to tell time on a clock,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald, smiling broadly. “It wasn't just about the ABCs and one, two, threes. It was also so formative and taught me about friendship, naming feelings, humor, and music. I can't believe that I get to be a part of it today.”

From “Sesame Street” kid to puppeteer

Raised by a family who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, the inclusivity and multiculturalism that “Sesame Street” has sought to highlight over the years made Kim feel understood. It eventually inspired her to decide on her career as a producer for children’s educational TV programs, starting out as a production assistant at Nickelodeon.

“I felt very seen and learned a lot from watching ‘Sesame Street.’ I wanted to do that for another generation. I just didn't know that I would end up on the other side of the camera one day on ‘Sesame Street.’”

Kathleen got into puppetry in her 30s. It was not what Kim imagined to be pursuing as a professional career. But her ineluctable passion spurred into a hobby of doing videos, performing, and going on shoots.

She eventually landed a job at the “Sesame Street” workshop in 2014.

“I really didn't plan on going into puppetry as a career. Who does that? It’s like one of those dream jobs, like wanting to be an astronaut,” Kim said. “My husband and I took a class for fun, puppetry for comedy improv. The teacher liked me. So he took me on some jobs and things, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun to do on the side.’”

“That sort of led me here. So, while some people actively pursue puppetry, I feel like a very lucky person that it kind of found me.”

Kathleen Kim performing Ji-Young alongside Alan Muraoka, puppeteer Ryan Dillon, and Elmo ((c) Sesame Workshop by photographer Zach Hyman)
Kathleen Kim performing Ji-Young alongside Alan Muraoka, puppeteer Ryan Dillon, and Elmo ((c) Sesame Workshop by photographer Zach Hyman)

Getting to know Ji-Young

Ji-Young, the 7-year-old Korean American character made her “Sesame Street” debut in November as part of a larger racial justice initiative from Sesame Workshop called "Coming Together," which aims to teach children about race, identity, and culture.

Ji-Young’s debut was accelerated, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans in recent years, which motivated the team to develop the character quicker.

However, Ji-Young has been met with some criticism by those who argue that the Muppets who appear on the show shouldn’t have a specific race at all. To this, Kim says that “’Sesame Street’ was still answering the question of racism in the Muppets” back when the show first started in 1969.

The many different colors and shapes of the Muppets have brought diversity and inclusion into the mix over time, which helped broach difficult subjects. Along with Hispanic and Black Muppets, there have also been characters such as Kami, a 5-year-old HIV-positive Muppet, and Julia, a Muppet with autism.

But Kim says we need to go further than that, because the show is now answering to a different need. “We have to teach kids about race and where racism comes from. We need to teach them how to recognize it when they see it and how to speak out against it,” she said. “It's difficult to do it with human kids, and it's difficult to do it with monsters who don't have a skin color.”

In fact, the Sesame Workshop team and Ji-Young’s puppeteer focused on making the 7-year-old muppet look and sound as realistic as possible, “not prim and proper, but more like just a kid.”

“I started her [voice] off very high and I tried a couple of character-y voices, trying to get really high. But the team wanted her to be almost similar to my voice because what Ji-Young is going to be doing is teaching real lessons.”

Ji-Young with Elmo, Abby, and Anna Cathcart ((c) Sesame Workshop by photographer Zach Hyman)
Ji-Young with Elmo, Abby, and Anna Cathcart ((c) Sesame Workshop by photographer Zach Hyman)

The power of a name

There was also intention in making Ji-Young specifically Korean American and giving her a Korean name, not a monolithic pan-Asian figure.

“It was important for Ji-Young to embrace and be proud of her Korean name. And it was really important that we show everybody else on Sesame Street also embraces and calls by her Korean name, that they accept it.”

The team’s efforts were recognized right on. Kim has gotten overwhelming responses of gratitude, with many Asian American fans saying they’ve felt seen and validated. One that touched Kim the most was the story of a real-life Ji-Young who immigrated to the States when she was young.

No one could pronounce her name properly and she was made fun of. Eventually, Ji-Young legally changed her name to Michelle to be and sound more American to fit in. Having two young kids of her own, Michelle found Ji-Young’s existence exceptionally meaningful.

These stories are what energize Kim to make Ji-Young a lovable character. Kim herself said it might have been different for her if she had grown up with a character like Ji-Young by her side.

“One of the things that I really love about Ji-Young as a character is that she loves and she's so proud of her Korean heritage. But when I was a kid, what makes you different from everybody else -- all the white kids at school -- makes you feel like an outsider or embarrassed,” she said.

“It took me a long time to understand what Korean American meant, and that it’s own thing. It doesn't mean that we're less than either. And I think seeing Ji-Young as a kid would have helped me get to that point a lot faster.”

A place for fun and silliness

Ji-Young and Ji-yeon -- Kathleen’s Korean name -- have a lot in common. While Ji-Young loves playing the electric guitar and Ji-yeon a clarinet, they are both louder than most people assume Asian women are. They are opinionated and confidently speak their minds.

For Kim, Ji-Young is a channel, but also her purpose is to help all kids see some aspect of themselves in her. Kim says they are still getting to know each other better in order to make that happen.

“Being a place where a kid and all their big, big feelings could feel understood. That was always a dream for me to be that for the next generation. Not just being an educational source, but to be a place of fun, silliness, creativity, and humor in a way that kids can feel seen…We don’t have to put people in boxes or make them feel like outsiders. We are all awesome individuals and that’s what I want her to be.”

By Choi Jeong-yoon and Kim Min-jung (jychoi@heraldcorp.com) (minjung.kim@heraldcorp.com)

Video by Team Konnect
Kim Min-jung (minjung.kim@heraldcorp.com)
Jung Ji-eun (jungje@heraldcorp.com)
Choi Jeong-yoon (jychoi@heraldcorp.com)
Kim Jeong-ryul (ryul@heraldcorp.com)
Cho Eun-bee (honeybee@heraldcorp.com)

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