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Dr. Yong and Moon Choo…On a Fascinating Life Journey.
01/09/2008 - By By Tobi Drucker Tesoriero
Respected physician and community leader Dr. Yong Choo has traveled quite a journey, not only in distance measured in miles but in life, culture, and circumstances.
Born in North Korea prior to the Korean War, he witnessed the hardships and horror of war, watching as his family’s home was destroyed. Yong and his family had to relocate to South Korea. During that trip he and his immediate family barely survived on severely limited food provisions, parsing out meager nourishment and water, enduring the harsh, brutally cold winter, suffering frostbite en route, and finally arriving at, then living, in a refugee camp.
Moon Choo, a tireless volunteer, community activist, fundraiser, and artist, was the baby in a family of eight siblings. Born in South Korea to a loving and supportive family, she led a charmed live with no memory of war. She decided to follow her older siblings to study in the United States, and spent her collegiate time in Alabama.
Following is an interview with the Choos, which gives a glimpse into the lives of this fascinating couple who, from the other side of the world, independently set off for America on educational missions, met, married, and made Holmdel their home.
LIH (commenting on a large black and white painting of a staircase): What an impressive painting!
MC: I made that for Yong. It was for a surprise party to celebrate his board certification. At the time I was chairing a hospital charity ball, and I make a painting of the theme each year. I worked on that painting for Yong as I worked on the painting for the charity ball for Bayshore Hospital.
LIH: So you make the actual artwork for the charity ball?
MC: Yes…I do an original painting. It is a large size and we take a picture of that to use in the invitations we make – usually around 2,000 to 2,500. Then we use that painting for the cover of the journal. So while I was doing the painting (for the ball) I was doing this painting (points to the aforementioned painting of a staircase) and Yong said, “That is not for the charity ball.” I said it was for Charles, my son, who just bought a house – pretending that it was to be a gift for Charles’ first house – and he (Yong) believed me (laughs). I did it for Yong, to celebrate his being board certified. Charles had taken a photograph with his class at Holmdel High School by this stairwell and I made a story of Yong’s life with the steps to show it.
LIH: So the photo was the inspiration for the painting?
MC: Yes, Yong was Chief of Staff at the hospital at the time, so I made a painting of the photograph step by step. It is three-dimensional; you are looking at it from the top down…so I made a nice story of that. I read in Korean at the party and Charles was translating it into English, and I asked the guests – 150 guests – to sign it, most from the Bayshore institution, and he didn’t even know I was planning a celebration!
YC: I didn’t know.
LIH: Where do these paintings go?
YC: The hospital.
MC: They hang them up all over the hospital, in different areas. There is one in the main entrance when you walk into the hospital. I paint them with the hospital logos.
YC: The paintings in this room are done by my wife; the oriental paintings outside this room were done by my mother. The others are classics or antique artwork. (He walks into the foyer.) This one over here was from my father’s patient; this one was painted by the last Korean king’s uncle…very famous.
LIH: What medium do you work in?
MC: Acrylic, as I have to work fast; oil takes longer to dry. See this hospital logo, the seagull? Every painting has to have the bird on it. And the other birds are the patients flying to Bayshore. Before this I was on the Charity Ball Committee for a long time. Yong is so busy with his patients at the hospital, and I learned to love his patients too.
LIH: What kind of medicine do you practice?
YC: Private practice. I am an internist and a pulmonologist.
LIH: How long have you been living in Holmdel?
MC: 30 years.
LIH: Why did you choose to make Holmdel your home?
YC: I mainly worked in Holmdel, I needed to be close to the hospital, and I don’t have time to spare.
MC: Yes, he has to get there within 5 minutes. I did not know Holmdel was such a wonderful town. We came from Manhattan. We did not have money and we got an offer from one of the founding members, a physician, Dr. Genova. At the time, the hospital was only 5 years old, so we came down to take a look at the hospital and we met Dr. Genova. I asked him what he was offering and he knew we did not have any money to open a fancy practice. He said “what you can do is use my office, use my secretary, get a telephone, and you can start your practice.” I felt it was too good to be true and I asked him, “Why you do that for us?” And he was looking at me, with a sweet sigh and said, “Because we need him.” So we lived in Red Bank for 1 year in an apartment. Then, because Yong was getting busier at the Bayshore Hospital, we wanted to live closer to the hospital. Holmdel was the closest we could be. Even when the realtor had suggested we look at other towns that were less expensive, we knew Yong needed to be as close to the hospital as possible for his patients. I had no idea how wonderful the schools were. I think we had a stroke of good luck.
YC: Also, Dr. Baldi was there at the beginning, bringing me into the hospital.
MC: Two physicians were asking us to join the hospital. Baldi was the Director of Pathology, Genova was the president and he was a surgeon.
LIH: When you said you were living in Manhattan, had you been practicing medicine there?
YC: At that time I was studying at New York Medical College; before that I was a Fellow at NYU.
LIH: And where were you living before Manhattan?
MC: I was going to college in Alabama. My sister was there and my brother was a political science professor at the University of Alabama, and so they knew of a small girl’s college near there. It was like a finishing school – 500 girls – everyone had to live in the dormitory and every night after five you had to “dress.” When you would go out you needed permission from the dorm mother, and there was a certain time when you had to come back. My parents loved that! I couldn’t believe a school like that was in the United States.
LIH: So how did you two meet?
MC: When it was summer vacation I went to stay with one of my sisters in Asbury Park. While there, I was doing some exercise to lose weight; I was so skinny when I came to the United States, like size 0, but within one year eating the American food I got to be size 10! My sister said, “Oh, no, I have to send Moon to the gym.” And so I was taking a local bus to Red Bank to do the exercise when I found one Asian lady on the bus. I was so excited that I went to talk to her.
LIH: Was she Korean?
MC: Yes, she was.
YC: But she didn’t know that the other lady was Korean.
MC: She was married to an American GI and I found her story fascinating. So I brought this stranger I met on the bus back to my sister’s house. It turned out she would introduce me to Yong!
LIH: So you knew the lady on the bus?
YC: Yes…so now you want to hear my side of the story?
LIH: Yes (laughs).
YC: I was an intern in Monmouth Medical Center. My friend (who lived in Eatontown) knew the lady that was married to the American GI because she sold Korean vegetables. She invited us to a picnic, so two Korean doctor couples and I went there. We got to talking, and when she found out I was single she wanted to introduce me to her friend.
MC: She felt I was so nice to help her out. She said, “You know Moon, I know one doctor, such a nice man. I think two nice people should get together.”
YC: And anyway that is how we met.
LIH: So did you exchange phone numbers?
MC: No, she gave my older sister his phone number. So my sister called him to check on him. My sister said, “Why don’t you come down? We have three sisters here and my baby sister is going back to college in September, so I want you to meet my baby sister.” So he came to my sister’s house and that’s how we met.
LIH: What a great story! It makes you really believe in fate. What are the odds of something like that happening?
YC: At that time there were only five Korean families in Monmouth County.
MC: There was no Korean church; I married Yong in Washington, DC.
LIH: How did you wind up in Washington, DC?
MC: I have a traditional family. My oldest brother came into the United States in 1953, and after that all eight siblings came to the United States, one after another, and most were married in Washington, DC, so I followed along. My brother told Yong, “If you don’t marry in Washington, DC, you don’t get my baby sister!” (Laughs.)
LIH: So, Yong, how did you wind up in the United States?
YC: I am the one son in a doctor’s family. As I said, my father was a doctor, my uncle was a doctor; I came to the United States for extended training to be a doctor.
LIH: What was your childhood home like? Can you share specific experiences?
YC: I was born in North Korea and escaped to the South during the Korean War at age 11.
LIH: Was your whole family able to get out of North Korea?
YC: My grandparents were left in North Korea.
MC: They thought that they would be back in a couple of months.
YC: My two sisters and my parents were able to get to South Korea. I was in the refugee camp. During that time when we escaped I had frostbite on my hand; we escaped on a small boat.
MC: He had nothing to drink.
YC: In 7 days all I had was 21⁄2 cups of water and one bowl of rice. Then after that time at the camp we had one meal a day and we felt very lucky at that point.
LIH: How did you cope in your new surroundings?
YC: They had schooling in the camp, with American support.
LIH: Did you go straight from the camp to the US or did your family get absorbed into life in South Korea?
YC: My father started to practice medicine again.
LIH (to Moon): And your family was from South Korea?
MC: My family is from South Korea and I don’t remember the Korean War. I do remember as a baby that if I got sick, as a holiday treat, I got US crackers, candies, and pineapple in the can. I have learned so much from Yong and I appreciate it. Yong’s life and mine were so totally different. I was the baby of eight siblings and my father and mother treated me differently, I guess , because I was the baby. My parents had me when they were 41. I was not the #1 student but it was okay. I really appreciate the love and the time they spent with me in my childhood. On top of that, we are a Christian, so in that way we are very traditional…a traditional, conservative type of family. We joined the church; we could go to the choir, so we have a totally different family background, Yong and I.
LIH (to Yong): Can you tell us more about your family background?
YC: I grew up under my grandfather; I was educated with Chinese Confucius philosophy.
MC: It is more like a moral code than a religion.
YC: They believe we came from our ancestors.
LIH: And you two have no problem combining your different backgrounds?
MC: No…he came alone. I came and had a hard time with the language and adopting US culture.
YC: Both of us did.
MC: Once we got married we had no problem. We learned from each other and we were supporting the same goals.
LIH: You mentioned adopting US culture. What parts did you adopt?
YC: I think the most important part is expression of love; in Korea there is no hugging, no showing affection. You express how you feel here; in Korea a man does not do that.
MC: For example, when his mother was visiting I told him, “You shouldn’t kiss me when you go out.” When he went to work everyday I went to the foyer and I said, “See you later” and we kissed. I told him, “Your mother is here, you shouldn’t do that.” He said, “I don’t care, I think my mother wants to see us in the life we have. Don’t act, don’t fake.” So she (Yong’s mother) asked us (she was so smart) to just hurry up and do it!
LIH: You are both actively involved with Bayshore Hospital. Moon, you have your volunteer work, and Yong, you have your long professional history with the hospital; are there any other community activities in which you are involved?
MC: Monmouth Grace United Korean Methodist church – we are deacons there; also the Dante Alighieri Society and Yong’s practice. When we came down to Holmdel and Yong opened the practice in 1977 I was involved in his practice so much. I washed the patients’ gowns, I gave the payroll checks, and I was the office staff, all with the two babies. I raised Charles and Donyne. Charles was born in 1973, Donyne was born in 1976. Both children were schooled from K–12 in Holmdel public schools. Charles set records for track and field at Holmdel High School in the sprint. He went to Tufts undergrad, majoring in biology, and went to grad school at the University of Washington, Seattle, as an architect major. Now he lives in Seattle with his wife Karin and three kids. Donyne graduated Holmdel High School as valedictorian and also ran track and won awards for it. She went to Harvard undergraduate, graduated magna cum laude, majored in history and science, and then went to Harvard Law. So while helping Yong’s practice I raised two kids and I was involved in the Dante Italian Ladies' Club.
LIH: What does the club do?
MC: The club does non-profit activities, scholarships funds; they help the hospital and the poor. The qualification is that you or your spouse has to be Italian. They changed the by-laws, so there is me, one Australian lady, and one Jewish lady. I really enjoy it. I was a board member. We have speakers come in and, as a matter of fact, Yong will be speaking at the May meeting. We have a general meeting and board meetings once a month and we have cultural programs, trips, an installation dinner, and high school scholar awards.
YC: Monmouth County students.
LIH: What will you speak about?
YC: I speak mostly about general health.
MC: I am also involved in the Medical Spouses' Association and am a Holmdel Foundation for Educational Excellence (HFEE) Board Member; we raise funds for schools, we give grants, and we give money for computers…whatever the kids need. The group raises a lot of money each year. The charity ball for the hospital raises 150 thousand [dollars] each year. I am also involved with the 150th Anniversary of Holmdel Committee.
YC: For months and months she has meetings in the house.
MC: We meet six or seven times a year; we have our meeting, then a luncheon follows. I made Korean dishes and, just in case, I also made sandwiches…and no one touched the sandwiches. They loved the Korean dishes! I like to involve American society activities with my heritage, my Korean culture. I learned Korean traditional dance, a 4-minute performance, but it took me a year to learn that.
LIH: Where did you take lessons?
MC: At the church we have a wonderful teacher. She worked hard with me. My gracious husband, when I told him I needed the best costume for my performance to cover me up (laughs), got me a costume specially ordered from Korea. I feel I am the ambassador from Korea. I can bring my Korean food, culture, dance, and music. I enjoy showing people my culture.
LIH (to Yong): Are you involved with any professional organizations?
YC: I started my practice in 1977; I became Medical Director of Respiratory Care until now, for 30 years. You asked why I bought a house in Holmdel. My job is treating people who couldn’t breathe, so I had to be in the hospital right away, anytime – day or night – so we chose Holmdel. From 1977 to 1990 I took not one day off.
MC: No weekend, no holiday. Snowstorms he couldn’t get out.
YC: Policemen would come pick me up. And at that time my wife couldn’t drive, raising two kids and supporting me 100%. She had the house, had a party for the doctors, and cooked all Korean food. We worked together, dreamed together; we have been very happy. So…some of the things I have done over 30 years: I am a member of the Executive Committee; 2 years Director of Medicine; 2 years By-law Committee, VP and Chairman of Credentials; and Chairman of the Medical Staff.
MC: He also set up the ICU in the hospital when he first joined the staff.
YC: During this time I tried to take the board exam so many times, but I was so busy I never could devote the time.
MC: He failed many times. Sometimes he couldn’t even sit for the exam, he was so busy!
YC: But finally I made it! I had joined a three-man practice so I was on duty every third night instead of every night; so I could study and I passed the boards on my ninth try, in 2001 at age 61.
MC: Not easy to take a test at that age!
YC: Then I wanted to take the test in pulmonary, but I trained 30 years ago. I was not sure they would let me take it, so I applied and they let me take it! The first time I failed by two points, the second time, in 2003 at the age of 63, I passed.
LIH: What are you studying for next?
YC: I am one of the oldest physicians in practice, but one of the newest Board Certified physicians. (Laughs.)
MC: He is Assistant Clinical Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, and Director of Education at Bayshore Hospital.
LIH: Anything else you are involved with or would like to share?
YC: I am glad that we are in America so we can express love. As I said, we are from such different backgrounds but we share and adopted this culture together. I can hug and I can say I am sorry. Oriental culture cannot hug, and because of that I can let her see how much she means. Without her support, all the committee work she does, the special things she does, I do not know how I could do it all. I could not be here without her support. I am a North Korean Mongol – cold weather, harsh life, just educated in Confucius philosophy. I know medicine, but I do not how to make things beautiful like this. Without her I cannot have things like this.
LIH: One final question – what question should we have asked that we did not ask? Or is there something we should know that would help complete the picture of Moon and Yong?
YC: We talk a lot about what is separate, but don’t talk a lot about what is common, like art.
MC: And kindness, consideration, and caring for others.
Roman Holiday (MC)
Ben Hur (YC)
people who talk on cell phones in public (MC)
people who are not trustworthy (YC)
Name 3 people you’d like to dine with:
• Billy Graham – helps me be close to God;
• Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the UN – source of pride for me as a Korean;
• Lance Armstrong – never gives up, keeps hope, endurance (MC)
• Jonas Salk – impressed with research
• Henry Kissinger – love his accent
• Connie Chung – anchorwoman (YC)
Photo GalleryClick here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
: Yong and his beautiful bride Moon, in Washington DC, in 1972 as they started their lives together.
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