“Meet” by Kathleen and Ji Young’s debut performance (c) Sesame Workshop by Zack Hyman
“Sesame Street” was the “show” for 41-year-old Korean-American Kathleen Kim. But for her, it wasn’t just a childhood TV show – 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 of the series’ first Asian-American character, Ji Young.
“I remember being able to tell the time because I knew what time ‘Sesame Street’ was, even before I knew how to tell the time on the clock,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald, smiling widely. “It wasn’t just about the alphabets and one, two, three. It was also very formative and taught me about friendship, naming feelings, humor and music. I can’t believe I’d be a part of it today.”
From the “Sesame Street” child to the doll engine
Raised by a family that immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, the inclusivity and multiculturalism that Sesame Street has sought to highlight over the years have made Kim feel understandable. This eventually inspired her to decide on her career as a producer of children’s educational TV shows, starting as a production assistant at Nickelodeon.
“I felt very visible and learned a lot from watching Sesame Street. I wanted to do this for another generation. Little did I know I would end up on the other side of the camera one day on Sesame Street.”
Kathleen got into the art of dolls when she was in her thirties. This was not what Kim envisioned as a career. But her inevitable passion drove her to the hobby of shooting videos, performing and taking photos.
I finally got a job at Sesame Street in 2014.
“I didn’t really plan to go into the puppetry world as a career. Who does that?” Kim said, “It’s like one of those dream jobs, like wanting to be an astronaut.” My husband and I took a class for fun and puppet shows for comedy. The teacher loved me. So he took me on some jobs and stuff, and I thought, “Oh, that’s fun to do on the side.”
“That kind of led me here. So, while some people actively pursue the art of puppetry, I feel like a very lucky person to have kind of found me.”
Kathleen Kim performing Ji Young alongside Alan Morauca, puppeteer Ryan Dillon and Elmo (c) Sesame Workshop by Zach Hyman
7-year-old Korean-American character Ji Young made it “Sesame Street” 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 has accelerated, with the Black Lives Matter movement and an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans in recent years, prompting the team to develop the character even faster.
However, Ji-Young has been met with some criticism by those who argue that the muppets appearing on the show shouldn’t have a specific race at all. For this, Kim says Sesame Street was still answering the question of racism in the Muppets when the show first started in 1969.
The different colors and shapes of the puppets have brought variety and inclusion into the mix over time, helping to bring up challenging topics. Along with Hispanic and black dolls, there were also characters like Cami, a 5-year-old HIV-positive doll, and Julia, an autistic doll.
But Kim says we need to go further, because the show now caters to a different need. “We have to teach children about race and where racism comes from. We need to teach them how to recognize it when they see it and how to speak up against it.” “It’s hard to do with human babies, and it’s hard to do with monsters that have no skin color.”
In fact, the Sesame Workshop team and puppeteer Ji-young focused on making the 7-year-old’s dolls look and sound as realistic as possible, “not primitive and sound, but more like a child.”
“I started her [voice] Too far and I tried to use a few more character sounds, trying to get really high. But the team wanted it to be almost similar to my voice because what Ji-Young would do is teach real lessons.”
Ji Young with Elmo, Abby and Anna Cathcart (c) Sesame Workshop by Zach Heyman
There was also an intention to make Ji-Young specifically Korean-American and give her a Korean name, rather than a homogeneous Asian character.
“It was important for Ji-Young to embrace and be proud of her Korean name. And it was really important to show everyone else on Sesame Street that they embrace and call out her Korean name, and that they accept that.”
The team’s efforts were immediately recognized. Kim received overwhelming responses of gratitude, with many Asian American fans saying they felt the sight and verification of their sincerity. What impressed Kim the most was Ji-young’s true story, who immigrated to the United States when she was young.
No one could pronounce her name correctly and she was mocked. Eventually, Ji-Young legally changed her name to Michelle to be and sound more American to suit her. With two young children, Michelle found Ji-Young’s presence exceptionally meaningful.
It is these stories that motivate Kim to make Ji Young a likable character. Kim herself said that 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 I really like about Ji-Young as a character is that she loves her and is very proud of her Korean heritage. But when you were a kid, what makes you different from everyone else—all the white kids in school—makes you feel like weird or awkward,” she said.
“It took him a long time to understand what Korean Americans mean, and this is something of his own. It doesn’t mean we are less than either. And I think seeing Ji Young as a kid would have helped me get to this point faster.”
A place for fun and absurdity
Ji-Young and Ji-yeon – the Korean name for Kathleen, have a lot in common. While Ji-Young loves to play electric guitar and Ji-yeon a Clarinet, their voice is louder than most Asian women think. They are stubborn and confidently speak their opinions.
For Kim, Ji-Young is a channel, but her goal is also to help all kids see some aspect of themselves in her. Kim says they still get to know each other better in order to make it happen.
“To be a place where a child can feel all their great and great feelings of understanding. This has always been a dream for me to be that for the next generation. Not only to be an educational resource, but to be a place of fun, silliness, creativity and humor in a way that makes children feel visible.. We don’t have to put people in boxes or make them feel like strangers. We’re all wonderful individuals and that’s what I want them to be.”
Written by Choi Jeong-yoon and Kim Min-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org) (email@example.com)
Video by Team Connect
Kim Min-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jung Ji Yeon (email@example.com)
Choi Jeong Yoon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kim Jeong-ryul (email@example.com)
Cho Eun Pee (firstname.lastname@example.org)