Photo credit: Neven Krcmarek
Singapore –and possibly the world’s first – silent tea bar empowers the deaf and individuals with mental health issues to seek gainful employment, while bridging the gap between the hearing and non-hearing world.
The so-called Tearistas, a team of 30 deaf facilitators, perform tea rituals using sign language, gestures and flash cards, and teach participants the art of mindfulness and communication without the need to use words. Phones and speaking are strictly prohibited during the sessions.
Hush TeaBar offers busy urbanites a reprieve from the time-pressured, high-stress modern lifestyle, while creating an inclusive work and social environment for the disabled and the marginalized. The tea rituals are often run as part of corporate team-building – Hush @ Workplace offers companies, large and small, a new model to integrate employee wellness with community engagement.
Participants first learn four key phrases in sign language (Thank you | Sorry | Please forgive me |I love you), read a card of inspiration (`Hush-it-on’) authored by a previous ‘Husher’, and select a type of tea (`Teamood’) which mirrors the emotion – be it gratitude, courage or freedom – they would like to focus on during the tea reflection ritual.
The silent ritual is followed by a sharing session and each participant then writes their own words of inspiration. Each ‘Husher’ is also encouraged to create art using tea as a form of ink (!) and a medium to express what they have experienced during the reflection session.
“Hush challenges the traditional notion of ability and disability. When we step into an environment of complete silence where we are not allowed verbal communication, we become handicapped ourselves; so who are we to judge people who were born with special needs, and who have trouble keeping pace with the conventional expectations of society?”
Meeting Anthea Ong, Founder of Hush fills you with a level of energy and enthusiasm that’s effortlessly infectious – the air is crackling with positive vibes when she joins me for our interview.
An eye defect since birth and bullying throughout her childhood, including by her very own family, equipped Ong with the aspiration and resilience to excel in all aspects of her life. A former banker, founder of a successful edutech startup, Managing Director at the tender age of 25 with numerous other C-level roles under her belt – she boasts a(n almost) picture perfect career path.
She insists, however, that good times always have an expiry date, as do periods of adversity. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, she has gone from a high-flyer life to hitting rock bottom: a rough divorce, backbreaking business lawsuits and eventually, complete financial bankruptcy. Reaching the lowest point of her life, however, helped her determine her true purpose – helping the disadvantaged, and “bringing self care and mental wellness into the workplace.”
From an entirely volunteer-run initiative spearheaded by Ong that was only able to pay the deaf TeaRistas, Hush has grown into a sustainable social business that reinvests the revenue generated from corporate team-building and CSR activities to support its social mission.
Hush pioneered what Ong calls a “new responsibility model” and a social movement that marries employee wellbeing with social good, improving business productivity with a ripple effect on society, especially on the welfare of disadvantaged and special needs individuals.
The social enterprise has trained people from all walks of life from C-level business executives, senior diplomats through to teachers, janitors and domestic helpers. Tea rituals have proven to be an effective antidote to mental health issues, an epidemic that’s become ubiquitous in most Singaporean workplaces and schools.
Counting over 3800 working professionals, youth and everyday heroes among its past participants, Ong has countless stories of impact to share, each inspiring and unique in their own right.
A candid sharing session at the Ministry of Education allowed school principals to open up about the joys and hardships beyond the workplace – being a foster parent, or raising a hearing impaired child. A senior US Embassy official found that Hush offered the first real occasion – given the pressures of his professional life – to freely mourn the death of his mother. Breast Cancer Foundation employees and beneficiaries learnt how to sign “I am a survivor, I won the fight”, and – in the words of one participant – how “to be grateful for the life I have”.
Hush also runs a programme called YoungXHUSH, training youth volunteers on signing and stress-reduction techniques – skills which they can then educate their peers on, and Hush @ Community, a public engagement initiative, which introduces disenfranchised communities to the world of silence.
Everyday heroes, including differently-abled people, individuals with mental health issues, cleaners, security guards, social workers, migrant workers, ex-offenders, single mothers and other marginalized individuals have been invited to come along to share their stories.
“Silence can be so deafening yet discomfort soon turns into an admiration for the courage it takes to take on the world with no sounds.” Ong’s parting words gives us the perfect food for thought to ponder as we take a precious moment to sip a cup of tea and appreciate the small joys and victories in life.