Left to right: Muppets Elmo, Ji-Young, Abby Cadabby, and Tamir play in the Best Friends band on "Neighbor Day" in Sesame Street. [Image: Sesame Workshop ©2021]

Belonging in the Neighborhood: Sesame Street Debuts Its First Asian American Muppet


On Thanksgiving Day 2021, Sesame Street expressed gratitude for new friends and acceptance by introducing the world to its newest Muppet, Ji-Young, a seven-year-old Korean American girl, in its “See Us Coming Together Special”. The first ever Asian American Muppet on Sesame Street, Ji-Young loves to play her electric guitar and skateboard. Depending on how Ji is translated from Korean, it can mean “smart”, “wise”, or, highlighting how at home she will be on the show, “sesame.” Her puppeteer, Kathleen Kim, is also Korean American.

Ji-Young’s introduction to the show centers around a discussion of belonging after Ji-Young is told off-screen by another child to “go home”, a common insult heard by Asian Americans throughout history and most recently during a period of heightened anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The comment makes Ji-Young feel like she should not take part in Sesame Street’s “Neighbor Day” because of this insult, but with the support of other Sesame Street residents and guest stars by the end of the episode she realizes Asian Americans are integral members of their communities and worthy of love and support. In addition to long-time Sesame Street cast member Alan Muraoka, notable Asian Americans who shared their own stories of what it means to belong included DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee; television host and author Padma Lakshmi; chef Melissa King; actor Simu Liu; and tennis player Naomi Osaka.

Ji-Young with Simu Liu and Big Bird
Ji-Young with actor Simu Liu and Big Bird [Image: Sesame Workshop ©2021]

Earlier this year, Sesame Street released a short video in June, “Proud of Your Eyes”, to teach children the importance of acceptance and racial diversity. Such programming supports Sesame Street’s “Coming Together Workshop” initiative which provides tools for families to discuss racial justice and “Sesame Street in Communities” which covers a wide variety of important and sensitive topics including but not limited to grief, homelessness, self-care, literacy, and traumatic experiences.

In addition to promoting greater acceptance in the United States, Sesame Street is also hard at work across the Indo-Pacific. In South Asia, Sesame Street co-produces the programs Baghch-e-Simsim in Afghanistan, Sisimpur in Bangladesh, and Galli Galli Sim Sim in India. Each of these programs helps to address issues affecting families throughout the region, from living below the poverty line to limited educational opportunities for girls to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

In East Asia and Oceania, Sesame Street provides resources in countries’ native languages, English language schools, and traveling shows to both entertain and teach children and their families about important topics.

Sarah Wang is a Programs Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.