MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now let’s move on to some big news from a very famous and friendly neighborhood. Yes, the “Sesame Street” gang welcomes a brand new member to their community. She is Ji-Young, a 7-year-old Korean American Muppet. She is the first Asian American Muppet character in the 52-year-old series and will make her Thanksgiving debut in a special celebration of diversity in Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
(SOUND CLIP FROM A TV SHOW, “SESAME STREET”)
KATHLEEN KIM: (as Ji-Young) Hello, Mr. Alan. Hi Elmo.
RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Hi.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Are we ready to rock?
(GUITAR PLAYING SOUNDBITE)
ALAN MURAOKA: (As Alan) Sounds like you are.
KIM: (as Ji-Young) I can’t hear you.
MURAOKA: (As Alan) I said, it looks like you are.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, yeah. Yes. Look at this – one, two, three, four.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR RIFF)
DILLON: (As Elmo, laughs).
KIM: (As Ji-Young, laughs) I can’t wait to play my guitar for everyone today. I practiced and practiced with my halmeoni.
DILLON: (As Elmo) Your halmeoni?
KIM: (as Ji-Young) Oh, yeah. Halmeoni means grandmother in Korean. She sings while I practice.
DILLON: (As Elmo, laughs).
MARTIN: The character is part of a larger Sesame Workshop racial justice initiative called Coming Together, which aims to teach children about race, identity and culture. Kathleen Kim is the puppeteer who brings Ji-Young to life in “Sesame Street,” and she’s now with us to tell us more.
Kathleen Kim, welcome. Thank you very much for being with us. Congratulations.
Kim: Oh, my God. Hello thank you very much. It’s amazing to be here. Thanks for inviting us.
MARTIN: You know, everyone wants to know. For example, how do you become a puppeteer? Did you grow up watching the series? Was it something that was kind of always on your mind?
KIM: Oh, my God, yeah. I – you know, I’m the first born of Korean immigrants. And so, yeah, “Sesame Street” is how I learned English, I feel like, the long – you know, I feel like it’s a common history of, like , children of immigrants. And “Sesame Street” was my bread and butter. I liked it. This is what pushed me to get into production. The dream has always been to be a Muppeteer.
I always would have – I had always been a fan of puppets and Jim Henson and “The Muppets” but I never pursued that professionally. My husband and I – we took, like, a puppet class for comedy improvisation for fun. And then it kind of spurred a hobby, like making videos and acting and, you know, doing little shoots and things like that. But it wasn’t until 2014 that I was accepted into this puppet workshop on “Sesame Street”. And so I’ve, you know, worked here and there since.
And then Ji-Young just arrived this year. It’s part of, as you said, the initiative to teach racial literacy to “Sesame Street.” But I think, you know, the formation of Ji-Young’s genesis genre accelerated with the increase in hate crimes against Asians this year, and “Sesame” knew they wanted to do some kind of celebration. special in — the AAPI community, and it sort of came out of there.
MARTIN: Yeah, how – that was the other thing I wanted to ask you, you know, because you’re – it comes at a time when there’s all these different strains, right? And I know you’ve heard – there’s a conservative activist who has – tweeted about it. It got a lot of attention from both the right-wing media and of course the – you know, some of the progressive media, saying, oh, no, you know? Like, why do we need this? The Muppets don’t have a race, do they?
On the other hand, there are people who bristle at the idea that people teach people – that it takes someone to teach people about race and culture rather than themselves, recognizing that “Sesame Street” is for little kids. And they–little children, you know, learn everything. We teach them to do math, we teach them to read, you know?
But I’m just wondering. I’m sure you’ve all had these conversations among yourselves because Sesame Workshop is known to have these kinds of conversations among themselves before they put these characters in the spotlight. And I was just wondering how all of you, if you don’t mind, you know, sharing, how you navigated this, this idea, you know, between these two strains, which are both very vocal in our society in this moment.
KIM: Man, that’s a tough question. I mean, it’s definitely a topic that’s been heavily discussed. You know, I will say, though, we had so many different types of reactions to Ji-Young. And I will say they all sort of validate the need for her (laughs) to be on Sesame Street and bring that representation that hasn’t always been there for the Asian American community.
I myself have chosen to focus on the overwhelming positive response we have had from everyone, especially the Asian American community, who suddenly feel seen by this brand they have loved and admired ever since. generations. And that’s – what’s really amazing is that while this may be newsworthy for us and our generation, the hope is that – you know, I have a 6-year-old daughter myself . And the hope is that for our children, it’s not extraordinary at all that we can see, you know, more representation in the media that they get.
MARTIN: So what other fun things are Ji-Young going to get into if you can, you know…
Kim: I’m not sure. I mean – (laughs).
MARTIN: …Without giving us any secrets?
KIM: There’s no – I mean, there – they could still be secrets for me, honestly. Like, we have – what I really love about the API special that’s going to air on Thanksgiving is that we’re dealing with some of this – (unintelligible) say it. But, you know, like, at the start of the special, Ji-Young gets told by a kid – we don’t see it but that she should go home. And it addresses the kind of, like, otherness that Asian Americans feel, even though we’ve never lived anywhere that we don’t belong here in our own country.
But the amazing thing about the special that Liz Hara, you know, kind of integrated, it’s also, like, a celebration of the diversity of Asian Americans and what we’re contributing, you know, as Americans. On the other hand, I really want her to be a fun character that everyone can relate to and see themselves in. So I hope she has more fun. She likes skateboarding, so I don’t know if that’s going to play out (laughs), but definitely, you know, fun and friendship with everything else like the program.
MARTIN: Can I talk to Ji-Young for a second?
Kim: Of course.
MARTIN: Can I talk to Ji-Young? Ji Young.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Hi.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Is that – so what does NPR stand for?
MARTIN: Well, Ji-Young, that stands for National Public Radio. But for now, we just say NPR.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) What is radio?
MARTIN: Wow (laughs). Radio is how many people listen to interesting music and interesting news.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Oh, okay. That – I got it. That’s great. My parents listen to the news. I like rock ‘n’ roll music, though. It is my favorite. And you know what?
KIM: (As Ji-Young) I’m really good at electric guitar.
MARTIN: Wow, I heard you were. How did you learn to play the electric guitar?
KIM: (As Ji-Young) But I learned from the videos. I took lessons. I train a lot because I want to be really good.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Me too. That’s how I learned to do radio because I practiced a lot too. Well, I can’t wait to see you on “Sesame Street”. Thanks for visiting us today.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Aw, thank you. It is a very beautiful place. You should come visit.
MARTIN: I certainly will. I will do it. OKAY. Let me say goodbye to Ms. Kathleen.
KIM: (As Ji-Young) Alright. Good bye Michael. It’s nice to talk…
MARTIN: Nice talking to you.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you Kathleen Kim. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about you and Ji-Young. It’s Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer behind Ji-Young, the very first Asian American Muppet on “Sesame Street.”
Kathleen Kim, thank you so much for being with us and bringing Ji-Young.
Kim: Oh, thank you. Thanks a lot guys.
(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO SESAME STREET?”)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Sunny day, sweeping clouds on my way to where the air is balmy.
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