There’s one more kid who can tell you how to get to Sesame Street.
The children’s show is introducing its first Asian American character in its 52-year history on Thanksgiving — a 7-year-old Korean American Muppet named Ji-Young.
Ji-Young plays electric guitar and skateboards. She also enjoys less intrepid activities, such as cooking Korean food like tteokbokki (stir-fried savory rice cakes) with her halmoni (grandmother).
The 41-year old actor and puppeteer who plays Ji-Young is also Korean American. Kathleen Kim grew up between Manhattan and Long Island and now lives with her family in Queens, not far from where she grew up.
Kim — who previously played Elena (the mother of an autistic child named Julia) on “Sesame Street” and Toeknee, the imaginary friend on “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens” — said she has been overwhelmed by the response from other Asian Americans since Ji-Young was announced last week.
“There’s something incredibly validating that we’re a Muppet now, which is a very American brand, and on ‘Sesame Street,’ which is a very classic, beloved American show,” Kim said.
Ji-Young debuted on “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special” on Nov. 25 on HBO Max, PBS Kids and Sesame Street’s YouTube, Facebook and Instagram channels. Actors Simu Liu and Anna Cathcart, TV host and author Padma Lakshmi and tennis star Naomi Osaka also appeared in the episode, which addresses the recent surge in anti-Asian sentiment.
At the beginning of the episode, Ji-Young is told to “go home” — a common insult to Asian kids. Her neighbors, including Elmo, reassure her that she belongs. It is part of the Sesame Workshop’s “Coming Together” initiative, created to support families through ongoing conversations about race.
The Lily spoke to Kim — and Ji-Young — about why it was important that the first Asian American character be specifically Korean American, what to do about big feelings and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Kathy, I am so excited about this because I am also Korean American, and I grew up watching “Sesame Street” and now have a niece Ji-Young’s age. Why was it important that the character be Korean American and not a generic Asian American character?
A: In America, people want to paint all Asians as one monolithic pan-Asian, when, obviously, we come from so many different countries with their own cultures and languages and histories. We thought that the best way to show that is to make this particular character as specific as possible. They already had a Korean American puppeteer with me. I’ve been with the Sesame family since 2014.
She’s not representing all Asian Americans or all Korean Americans — she’s going to represent herself, and it just happens that her Korean heritage is a very important part of her. But it’s not the only thing that defines her. That’s obviously something that other Asian Americans that have been born here could probably relate to.
Q: This was part of a reaction to the rise in anti-Asian, anti-Asian American violence and prejudice over the past couple of years. What do you hope will happen?
A: I think that the formation of this character would have happened eventually. But the events of this past year, especially during covid, accelerated that need. It was done on a very accelerated timeline.
We do address the othering of Asian Americans. But the rest of the special is a celebration of the diversity of the Asian American community. So the hope is to fold everybody into it. My hope was that Ji-Young being part of this anti-racism initiative is not only to teach kids to identify racism when they see it, but to speak out against it.
But my hope is also that just seeing Ji-Young, a kid with a hyphenated name — she’s Korean, she speaks another language at home — that it just becomes normal to see kids who are from all over and of different ethnicities on TV. My hope is that kids eventually just relate to her as a character and not just, “Oh, Ji-Young, that’s the Asian one.” But that they like her because she’s funny and she’s a really good friend. And she’s silly.
Q: How similar are you and Ji-Young? How much input did you have?
A: Liz Hara, who was the writer of the “See Us Coming Together’’ script, was the one who conceived Ji-Young as a character, and we happen to be very good friends. She consulted with me a lot, like, “Would she say this? Or would she be like this? Or does this make sense as a Korean American girl?” So I did have some input on her as a character. And as I perform her, I’ll be getting to know her more and more.
We’re both louder than people assume most Asian girls to be. She’s more confident than I was as a kid, and definitely more proud to share her Korean heritage. In the 1980s, you had friends come over, and it’s like, “What’s that smell?” [referring to Korean food] and your parents can’t speak English in front of your friends.
As much as I love being Korean, as a kid, when it makes you feel like an outsider, it could make you feel a little embarrassed. I’m happy that Ji-Young is very proud of her Korean heritage. Also, she is way more brave — she’s into skateboarding. I mean, I could never do that.
Q: You have a 6-year-old daughter. Is she Korean or mixed or …?
A: Her dad is White. He’s an amalgam of some European stuff. So this is great. I’d love her to embrace her heritage more. I’m trying to tell her how great this is that we have the first Korean American Muppet on “Sesame Street.” I don’t think she sees anything too groundbreaking about it. And that’s the hope.
Q: It meant a lot to see Ji-Young counting in Korean and how she said Halmoni instead of Grandma. I think people got choked up when they saw the trailer. When I watched “Sesame Street” as a child, it’s not like I hoped to see someone Korean on the show because it just wouldn’t occur to me that would happen.
A: I grew up on “Sesame Street.” I loved it so much. I went into production because when people say, “What’s your dream job?,” I would have said Muppeteer, but I never would have thought it was possible. Growing up, there was very little to no diversity in it. I didn’t start puppeteering until my 30s. It’s a world that I didn’t think belonged to me.
Q: When I heard there would be a Korean American muppet, I didn’t necessarily assume it would be played by a Korean American puppeteer.
A: That’s so funny, because I’ve heard that a lot — on Asian American news or comments on Instagram. I guess it’s not expected. But I want that to change.
She should be informed by a Korean American person. It’s just built into her, and in subtle ways that someone who didn’t grow up Korean American wouldn’t necessarily know.
Q: Thank you so much. Would it be possible for me to interview Ji-Young now? Hi Ji-Young!
A: Annyeong haseyo!
Q: What are you eating for Thanksgiving dinner at your house?
A: Oh, you know, on Thanksgiving we do the normal American stuff like a turkey and mashed potatoes. My mom, she makes the cranberry sauce. But my dad likes the canned one because you can see the lines to cut them evenly. And so we always have the canned cranberry sauce for my Appa [Dad]. Oh, and stuffing, and what else? String beans. Pie! Lots of pie!
Q: What’s your favorite kind of pie?
A: I like pumpkin pie. Because whenever we have pumpkin pie, we get to put whipped cream or ice cream on it. And so that’s my favorite.
Q: Oh, that’s so nice. Sometimes when people say things to you that aren’t nice, how do you react? Do you tell your parents or do you just have big feelings by yourself?
A: Yeah, sometimes people are not nice, and sometimes people are not nice to others just because they’re different. They look different or they have different rules for Hide and Seek even, but sometimes people are not nice because other people have not been nice to them.
So I just try to be friends and try to be nice. But if it’s a really bad situation, I get a grown-up like my Umma [Mom], Appa or Mr. Alan from Cooper’s Store. Do you know Mr. Alan? He’s very nice. So I know I can talk to him if I need help.
Q: And is it okay to cry?
A: Yeah! It’s okay to cry sometimes. Do you cry?
Q: I do cry sometimes. But my parents did not like it when I cried.
A: Oh, that must have been really hard. You can cry in a safe space. The grown-ups in my life, they say that I’m safe to have big feelings with them. It’s important to have big feelings, and then it is good to talk about them.