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Can the deaf help us to listen better?

Channel NewsAsia's Genevieve Loh joins in on a social movement led by deaf TeaRistas to find out.

Can the deaf help us to listen better?

Hush TeaRistas playing cupid at a Hush TeaBar's Valentine’s Singles Special session (Photo: Howard Law)

SINGAPORE: The world felt like it was closing in. After putting in the ear plugs, I could no longer hear the whirring of the air-conditioner, the clinking of tea cups or the movement of other people around me.

I never really understood how loud silence was until then, as I sat in a café, sipping specially brewed tea. I had just learnt four basic sign language phrases but promptly got them mixed up.

I sneaked a peek at my neighbour releasing his third deep exhale, following the tea ritual directions to a, erm, tee. He opened his eyes and caught me looking. He smiled. I tittered. The girl across the table giggled and we all found ourselves exchanging imperceptible knowing nods.

But right there, in that quiet stillness, we communicated.

Welcome to the Hush experience. A social enterprise whose main aim is to promote the practice of embracing mindfulness and communication through silence while creating employment for the deaf, Hush is creating a paradigm shift.

To most of us, the idea that we could learn to communicate and connect with each other more effectively from people who cannot hear might not even occur. But Hush’s founder Anthea Ong and her band of deaf facilitators would like to show you how by inviting you to step into the world of the deaf.

“What amuses me are the facial expressions. People’s faces change like magic after we gesture to them that we are deaf!” TeaRista Low Kok Wah, who facilitates these sessions at Hush, told Channel NewsAsia via sign language. “I understand they can be pretty uncomfortable when they realize they are being served by people who are deaf.

According to founder Ong, Hush was launched as a social movement to bring both the hearing and non-hearing worlds together.

“This is an empowering space - an inclusive and integrative environment created for the non-hearing to lead the hearing because in silence, we are the same,” shared the former managing director of a consulting group.

For TeaRista Rahmat Hamka bin Osman, it was very important for him to be part of this movement.

“Because I get to do something meaningful,” he signed. “And (hopefully) others can do the same.”

TeaRista Low Kok Wah teaching the hearing paricipants simple sign language (Photo: Howard Law)

TeaRista Low Kok Wah teaching the hearing paricipants simple sign language (Photo: Howard Law)


A rare but important platform that bridges the gap between different communities, Low hopes Hush will dispel misconceptions about the deaf, while providing opportunity for employment.

“We are not anti-social or aloof. We just communicate with you on the go,” signed Low. “Learning some simple basic signs can really open a gate.”

Rahmat agreed, saying “I hope that hearing people can be more patient with us and (know) that we can do anything. All except hearing.”

Low also hopes that participants not only discover self-awareness but also leave with some important takeaways from their experiences. “It’s important to celebrate inclusion and integrate all of us as one,” signed Low. “You and I are the same. Break down barriers and let’s connect,” Low signed.

So how can the deaf help the hearing actually listen better?

“During the Hush experience, the deaf teach us to engage in silence, and in that process, we learn to shut out the white noise and listen to ourselves more,” Ong said. “This allows us the opportunity to pause and reflect on why we do the things we do, and what really matters to us.”

“If employers create such opportunities of experiential empathy and reflection for their employees, they give employees a more meaningful working environment, which fosters creativity and collaboration as a team culture.”

Since its inception in 2014, Hush TeaBar has seen its deaf TeaRistas go to workplaces all across Singapore to guide and facilitate corporate executives through silent “tea ritual” and “tea art” sessions to encourage participants to practice self-awareness and self-reflection given their increasingly hectic lives. Google, DBS, Ministry of Education, NUHS (National University Health System) are among some of the bigger organisations that have taken part.

During these sessions, participants are required to relinquish their mobile phones and other electronic devices so as to fully engage in the process - one which culminates in participants penning thoughts on paper, creating artwork using tea and sharing their experiences after a period of uninterrupted quiet.

This is all with the shared goal to “encourage silence and awareness (given) today’s ultra busy modern lifestyle”, said Ong.

Hush's deaf TeaRistas who lead the sessions from start to finish ( Photo: Howard Law)

The friendly deaf TeaRistas who lead the sessions from start to finish ( Photo: Howard Law)


Hush is looking at different ways to expand the social movement as well as help connect more people.

“We believe that ‘falling in love with silence’ (can) be a revolutionary social experiment to change the dating scene,” said Ong with a laugh. “Why not create opportunity for singles to meet, connect and build relations in an authentic and meaningful manner?”

According to Ong, this “singles in silence” social experiment is the first of its kind, and allows people to break the small talk and create deeper conversation beyond the pleasantries of a “How are You?” while learning to sign and communicate in silence with each other.

Low enjoys playing cupid during Hush’s Valentine’s Singles special sessions, which he sees as a fun change from conducting the regular corporate training stints.

“People say love transcends all but I believe love needs awareness to transcend above all senses we possess, especially hearing,” signed Low

For now, Hush is not looking to host a dating website. But its “tea ritual” experience - where one is encouraged to slow down and learn to communicate with reflection and silence - could very well work as an alternative to the fast-paced world of speed dating and online dating apps like Tinder.

Participants making the effort to slow things down during the Tea Ritual (Photo: Howard Law)

Participants making the effort to slow things down during the Tea Ritual (Photo: Howard Law)

Geetha Warrier who participated in Hush's special valentine’s singles session told Channel NewsAsia that she felt "great" after the proceedings.

“I feel that (this) offers (a) casual and informal setting, where people can meet and get to know each other. One is normally in a relaxed mode on these occasions, so communication is easier and face-to-face interaction helps with understanding the other person better. I thought this was brilliant.”

Source: CNA/gl