Motivation and success vary per person as much as your preference of your favorite New York pizza. Some fires are lit by food or family, some are within. Some believe success is money while others call it a day when they hit their first yawn, because of a job well done. For Dr. John Yoo, his motivation started when his father, a “gireogi appa,” returned to Korea to work when John was just 9 years old while his brother and mom stayed in the United States. He rarely saw him for 10 years until John gave his Salutatorian speech at his high school graduation. Now, as a pediatric dentist, personal trainer, almost K-Pop star, and successful Youtuber with over 100,000 subscribers on his channel “J-Bro,” people often wonder how he juggles it all. “I think I’m incredibly lucky to be able to compartmentalize my day. I’m not doing 16 hours of dentistry or any one thing, or I would burn out. I actually don’t feel it’s hard to manage at all because I want to do dentistry. I want to do PT. I want to do music. So, yes, it’s work, I’m putting in hours (100 hours a week), but these are all my passions and somehow they’re all now income streams.” Between opening a clinic to trying to find love as a single man in Koreatown, NYC, John hopes to master everything that comes his way.
The dream to become a dentist did not happen until John’s senior year of his undergraduate at Duke University. While he excelled in science and math, he also was filled with purpose when helping people. After working with a renowned research physician, he was faced with the reality of his situation, “Why do you want to go into medicine?” Hearing that question, John froze. “I didn’t have a particularly convincing response to that. I spent my whole life thinking that I was going to be a medical doctor and I can’t even answer this simple question. He saw me struggling with that response and said, ‘John, that’s normal. How are you supposed to know as a college student what you want to be for the rest of your life? I certainly didn’t know that.’” The physician prescribed him time-off from his research project to explore other avenues and find his passion. John fell on one of his oldest passions: music.
Growing up, John was drawn to music. When he wasn’t excelling in advanced placement classes, overloading on academics, or cracking jokes, he threw himself into singing, in multiple choirs, and has proven himself to be amongst one of the top baritone singers in the country. That’s why when he took time to explore, he went back to what grounds him the most. The “K-Wave,” consisting of Korean drama and Korean pop music, was infiltrating cultures around the world and John wanted in. After first creating his Youtube channel and putting music covers on there, averaging about 30,000 views per post, he thought maybe this was his calling. But the urge to help people superseded his appetite for stardom. “Then I thought I found the answer when I landed on music therapy. I thought, ‘this is a no brainer, I get to sing to patients and see them heal.’” After working a couple of months at a psychiatric hospital in North Carolina, John realized his passion lied in patients being treated by medical professionals. “Not to knock on music therapists, I think they’re doing a spectacular job healing patients, but I thought, maybe this is not the answer. But maybe I’m getting close.” After shadowing a pediatric dentist one day, his life was decided. He took out his journal where thousands of words of progress and change and of his life had already been written; he turned the page, wrote down the date, and said “I think I’ve found the answer.”
It was seeing the seamless interactions the dentist had with the children, the autonomy of having his own practice, and most saliently, happy to take two weeks off a year to treat poor children in Honduras with his staff. “I thought that was the perfect balance of entrepreneurship, healthcare, and philanthropy.” Before college, John and his father looked forward to spending time together on international volunteer trips, with his first being in Brazil. So when John took his first dental missionary trip to Panama in college, he was hooked. “My parents, being very avid Christians and big proponents of helping the community, always felt like we could do more for other people. I think seeing that trickled down into what I wanted my life to be like as well. Ultimately, when I’m on my deathbed, I want to be able to say, ‘Did I leave the world a little bit better of a place than when I had started. Did I make an impact?’”
The volunteer American doctors arrived and dozens of villagers walked 3 to 4 hours to get there. They lived with excruciating dental pain for half the year. And yet, they arrived smiling, grateful for some relief. Even still, they had to turn away some people because they ran out of time. As an undergrad, John was only qualified to provide a flouride treatment, something that frustrated him, unable to assist the ones turned away. Empowered and motivated to keep helping those in need, he knew that being able to use his efforts to help those in need was his driving factor. He took another dentistry trip to Cambodia and Jamaica while in dental school at the prestigious Columbia University in New York City and began his residency in clinics. “The single biggest fulfillment I get is when I get to interact with the population that I see as particularly vulnerable. I thought, what population do I want to work with and do I see the most reward in treating and it was, hands down for me, the kids. They have a limited understanding of what’s happening.” It is for this reason, John posts his interactions on Instagram with some of his patients, all young and nervous to be in the dentist limelight. Whether he is making them laugh or asking them questions, he distracts them from the procedure and engages with everyone that comes in his path.
In November 2020, John and his team, composed of Korean and Chinese-speaking doctors decided to open a clinic together in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Just a few months later, they are undergoing construction next door to an H Mart, a quintessential stop for any Asian dish needs. Fort Lee and Palisades Park — or Pal Park, as any red-blooded, bagel-eating Jerseyian will call it — are a mere 10 minutes across the Hudson River from the predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. With over half of Pal Park’s and Fort Lee’s residents of Korean ancestry, it is a hub and Mecca for the bridge and tunnel crowd. “Those places were the only things that my parents and I had, as like, a remnant of our life in Korea. We would spend weekends in Fort Lee and my mom would feel most comfortable there, since she barely spoke English. I would spend Saturday mornings and afternoons at an academy there learning Korean. Fort Lee has always been like a second home away from home and to be setting up our clinic there, actually excited my parents almost more than anything.”
John grew up in the suburbs of Morris County, New Jersey in a place he called a “pretty accepting town, compared to some of the other stories I hear of Asians growing up in some more aggressive areas. I was still embarrassed of some of the things that made me Korean or made me stand out as an Asian when I was growing up. Only a few other kids were eating sushi rolls or kimbab or smelly bibimbap Korean food. I wanted to be an American kid — not be different, not be an outcast.” Today, John embraces his identity, as he made his move from the Bronx, where he did his residency, to the bustling Koreatown, full of hidden karaoke spots, if you don’t know where to look; the best barbecue, if you go anywhere; and his culture teeming out of the packed 2 blocks, with more than 100 small businesses with multi-story stores and restaurants. The move inspired John and one of his best friends, Jason, to move in together and create “J Bro” — a Youtube channel with vlogs chronicling the lives of these two young men juggling work and fun. “We saw that there might be value in posting videos instead of showboating and these thirst traps on Instagram and trying to get DM’s all the time. Maybe we could make a music video or at least something memorable for us, something people will enjoy.” As a successful dentist, entrepreneur, musician, and now Youtuber, the question has come up of how John stays motivated.
When John and his family moved to the United States when he was just 4, he didn’t realize how embedded he would become in the American life. So when he was 9 years old and his father’s work visa expired, he and his brother begged them to continue their education in the United States. His father sacrificed 10 years to work in Korea so they could live in the United States. If at any moment he felt unmotivated, his older and wiser brother said, “‘Do you realize what they’re doing for you right now? Do you realize the amount of sacrifice that they’re doing? If you’re not studying, if you’re not doing your job, then that’s not worth it for them. So make it worth it.’ It wasn’t a guilt trip, it was more of an encouragement from my older brother. I internalized that I have an opportunity to do something. So now every chance that I get to do something, I don’t see it as an obligation, I see it as a chance for me to work hard. I try to be grateful for what I can get and to not waste it.”
John prescribes to the idea that immigrants are amongst the hardest working people. Without immigrants, there is no American identity. “I think the immigrant story is something that truly inspires people to work hard and achieve their goals, no matter what. I think there’s always value in placing your satisfaction off of your effort. That’s the one thing that you can control. It’s the mindset, the effort. Don’t think about the results. Don’t think about how much money. If you’re putting in one hundred percent in the right direction and you’re moving forward, hopefully things will work out. Beyond the asian community, one of the most valuable things I did was pay a little bit of attention in Spanish class.” Success is subjective, but motivation is within you. So what are your dreams? When are you going to start?