Column: Welcome to the neighborhood, Ji-Young


Photo credit: Sesame Street Promotional Poster

The nostalgic children’s show, “Sesame Street” has introduced its first ever Asian-American puppet. Meet 7-year-old Ji-Young, as she learns about her identity as an Asian-American girl.

By Sydney Frank, Columnist

I can’t be the only one who grew up watching “Sesame Street.” Whether it was Elmo encouraging me to use my imagination or Oscar the Grouch teaching me compassion, all of these characters grew up with me.

Last month, the children’s show made history when they announced that they were introducing the show’s first Asian American Muppet to the neighborhood. Played by puppeteer Kathleen Kim, Ji-Young is a 7-year-old Korean American who loves playing her electric guitar and skateboarding.

She made her debut in the past Thanksgiving Day episode, “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special” which follows original “Sesame Street” characters and their welcoming of Ji-Young, as well as celebrity guest appearances by actors Simu LiuAnna Cathcart and tennis star Naomi Osaka.

The special starts off with all of the characters preparing for the “Neighbor Day” celebration. From Ji-Young talking about her 할머니 (halmeoni) to Mr. Alan teaching a Japanese dance called Tanko Bushi, Asian culture is extremely prevalent. But when another child tells Ji-Young to “go home,” she expresses how it really hurt her feelings. This is a prime example of the kind of discrimination members of the AAPI community face in western countries where they’re often perceived as outsiders. After the incident, Ji-Young is introduced to other Asians in the “Sesame Street” neighborhood, who all unite to help her know that she’s exactly where she belongs.

The episode itself works to celebrate “the rich diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander communities” and does an incredible job of breaking down certain situations and concepts for their younger audience, as well as really getting them to empathize with Ji-Young. With the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. that happened during COVID-19, it is so refreshing to, now, see a source of representation that does not seem forced, or done for some publicity act. Especially because this is a children’s show, it really goes to show the ways in which providing younger generations with diverse forms of media is beneficial.

Something that really struck me was how Kathleen Kim voiced her opinion that Ji-Young should 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 in a recent interview. “It was very important that she [Ji-Young] was specifically Korean American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here.”

I relate to this sentiment in many ways, and I am so unbelievably grateful to see that an actual Asian American woman is behind this character. Kim brings in her own experiences that many of us resonate with, and it is very apparent that she cares a lot about this project.

Overall, to think that there will be young kids who will grow up with the show, as I did, but also get to see all of this diversity makes me so appreciative. Allowing younger generations to see the racial injustices that exist in our world today gives me hope for the future, and that they will create a better, more inclusive society for all of us.