Puppeteer on why 'Sesame Street' needs Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer behind Ji-Young, the show's newest Muppet. Kim, born to Korean immigrants, says she grew up watching the show herself.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1057684571/1057684576" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to some big news from a very famous and friendly neighborhood. Yes, the gang at "Sesame Street" is welcoming a brand-new member of their community. She is Ji-Young, a 7-year-old Korean American Muppet. She is the first Asian American Muppet character in the show's 52-year run and will debut on Thanksgiving in a special celebrating diversity in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

KATHLEEN KIM: (As Ji-Young) Hi, Mr. Alan. Hi, Elmo.

RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Hi.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Are we ready to rock?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

ALAN MURAOKA: (As Alan) It sounds like you are.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) I can't hear you.

MURAOKA: (As Alan) I said, it sounds like you are.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, yes. Yes, I am. Check this out - one, two, three, four.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR RIFF)

DILLON: (As Elmo, laughter).

KIM: (As Ji-Young, laughter) I can't wait to play my guitar for everybody today. I've been practicing and practicing with my halmeoni.

DILLON: (As Elmo) Your halmeoni?

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, yeah. Halmeoni means grandma in Korean. She sings along while I practice.

DILLON: (As Elmo, laughter).

MARTIN: The 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. Kathleen Kim is the puppeteer bringing Ji-Young to life on "Sesame Street," and she is with us now to tell us more.

Kathleen Kim, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us. Congratulations.

KIM: Oh, my gosh. Hello, thank you so much. It's amazing to be here. Thanks for having us on.

MARTIN: You know, everybody wants to know. Like, how do you become a puppeteer? Did you grow up watching the show? Is this something that was kind of always in your mind?

KIM: Oh, my gosh, yeah. I - you know, I'm the firstborn to Korean immigrants. And so, yeah, "Sesame Street" is how I learned English, I feel like, along - you know, I feel like it's a common story of, like, 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.

I would always - I had always been a fan of puppetry and Jim Henson and "The Muppets" but never pursued it professionally. My husband and I - we took, like, a puppetry for comedy improv class for fun. And then that just kind of spurred into a hobby of, like, doing videos and performing and, you know, going on little shoots and things like that. But it wasn't until 2014 that I was accepted into this puppetry workshop at "Sesame Street." And so I've been, you know, working here and there since.

And then Ji-Young just happened this year. It's part of, like you said, the initiative to teach racial literacy at "Sesame Street." But I think, you know, the formation of 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.

MARTIN: Yeah, how - that was the other thing I wanted to ask you about, you know, 'cause you're - this is arriving at a moment where there are all these different strains, right? And I know that you have heard about - there's a conservative activist who has - was tweeting about this. It's gotten a lot of attention on both the right-wing media and of course, the - you know, some of the progressive media outlets, saying, oh, no, you know? Like, why do we need this? Muppets don't have a race, right?

On the other hand, there are people who bristle at the notion that people teach people about - that you need somebody to teach people about race and culture as opposed to they should teach themselves, recognizing that "Sesame Street's" for little kids. And they - little kids, you know, are taught everything. They're taught how to do math, they're taught how to read, you know?

But I'm just wondering. I'm sure you all had those conversations among yourselves because Sesame Workshop is known for having those kinds of conversations among themselves before you bring these characters to light. And I just wondered how you all, if you don't mind, you know, sharing, how you navigated that, that idea, you know, between those two strains, which are both very kind of loud in our society right now.

KIM: Man, that's a tough question. I mean, like, it's definitely a topic that was heavily discussed. You know, I will say, though, 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 (laughter) to be at Sesame Street and bring that representation that hasn't always been there for the Asian American community.

I myself choose 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. And it's - what's really amazing is that while this might be newsworthy to us and our generation, the hope is that - you know, like, I have a 6-year-old daughter myself. And the hope is that for our kids, it's not extraordinary at all that we'll be able to see, you know, more representation in the media that they take in.

MARTIN: So what are some of the other fun things Ji-Young's going to get into if you can, you know...

KIM: I'm not sure. I mean - (laughter).

MARTIN: ...Without giving us any secrets?

KIM: There's no - I mean, there - they might still be secrets for me, honestly. Like, we have - what I really love about the API special that's going to be airing on Thanksgiving is that we do address some - (unintelligible) say it. But, you know, like, at the beginning of the special, Ji-Young is told by a kid - we don't see it but that she should go back home. And it addresses the sort of, like, othering that Asian Americans feel, even if we've never lived anywhere else that we don't belong here in our own country.

But the amazing thing about the special that Liz Hara, you know, sort of, like, integrated is it's also, like, a celebration of the diversity of Asian Americans and what we contribute, you know, as Americans. On the other side, I really just want her to be a fun character that everybody can relate to and see themselves in. So hopefully, she'll get into more fun. She likes skateboarding, so I don't know if that's going to play (laughter), but definitely, you know, fun and friendship along with everything else like the curriculum.

MARTIN: Can I talk to Ji-Young for a second?

KIM: Sure.

MARTIN: Can I talk to Ji-Young? Ji-Young.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Hi.

MARTIN: Hi.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Is it - so what's NPR stand for?

MARTIN: Well, Ji-Young, it stands for National Public Radio. But right now, we just say NPR.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh.

MARTIN: Yeah.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) What's the radio?

MARTIN: Wow (laughter). Radio is how a lot of people listen to interesting music and interesting news.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, OK. That - I get that. That's cool. My parents listen to news. I like rock 'n' roll music, though. That's my favorite. And you know what?

MARTIN: What?

KIM: (As Ji-Young) I'm really good at the electric guitar.

MARTIN: Wow, I heard that you are. How did you learn to play the electric guitar?

KIM: (As Ji-Young) But I learned from videos. I took lessons. I practice a lot 'cause I want to be really good.

MARTIN: Well, thanks. Me, too. That's how I learned how to do radio 'cause I practiced a lot, too. Well, I look forward to seeing you on "Sesame Street." Thank you for visiting with us today.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) Aw, thank you. It's a really nice place. You should come and visit.

MARTIN: I sure will. I sure will. OK. Let me say goodbye to Ms. Kathleen.

KIM: (As Ji-Young) OK. Goodbye, Michel. It's nice talking...

MARTIN: Nice talking to you.

KIM: Hi.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you, Kathleen Kim. I really look forward to hearing more from you and from Ji-Young. That is Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer behind Ji-Young, the first ever Asian American Muppet on "Sesame Street."

Kathleen Kim, thank you so much for being with us and for bringing Ji-Young.

KIM: Oh, thank you. Thank you guys so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO SESAME STREET?")

UNIDENTIFIED KIDS: (Singing) Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away on my way to where the air is sweet.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.