Breaking barriers – spoken and unspoken

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Natasha Parekh

17 February 2016

I started thinking about deaf culture only recently, when I met Anthea Ong. She founded Hush, a social movement in Singapore that brings together the hearing and non-hearing worlds in a unique silent tea ritual – the first of its kind in the country – led by deaf ‘TeaRistas’.


In our frantic everyday world, Hush provides an opportunity to slow down and disconnect from noise – within and without. It encourages finding comfort in stillness – engaging the right brain and creating space for new perspectives.

Everyone’s experience is different – many enjoy the sense of tranquillity and feel energised; some find it liberating, others daunting. There are those who’ve had profound experiences during moments of reflection, and others who felt uncomfortable even giving up their cell phones for an hour. Mine was poignant. After making considerable efforts to calm my mind, I finally relaxed into the silence. Grace, my TeaRista, began by teaching me to sign four important things:

I'm sorry, please forgive me, thank you and I love you.


As she guided me gently through the ritual of seeing, sensing and tasting, I slowly felt myself becoming aware of her. Eyes closed, my thoughts ran free. I wondered what her story was. How did Hush make her feel? How did she lose her sense of hearing? Did it happen at birth? What was it like growing up, and where did she go to school? What did she do in her spare time? Did her whole family sign? What are her hopes and dreams?

So many questions, but I was lost for words, or in this case, signs. I was struck by how far removed I was from Grace’s world. Deaf culture isn’t something I’ve ever had to engage with personally, and in fact, I’d previously only ever met one deaf person in all my 29 years! (I wondered about other facets of humanity that are missing from my horizon – the list seems rather long.) When we completed the ritual, I looked into Grace’s eyes and folded my hands in a gesture of 'Namaste' – a symbolic Indian greeting which means 'the divine in me bows to the divine in you'.

That evening, I reflected on my own experience of language. I grew up speaking English, Hindi and Gujarati in India, and when I was 11 my family moved to Dubai, where I had to study Arabic in school. French was the flavour of my college years and more recently, as work projects have immersed me in new cultures, I’ve dabbled in Portuguese, Mandarin and Spanish. My tiny verbal steps (or missteps) are an effort to feel welcome, to make connections – but mostly to succeed in different environments.

So what does it feel like for our non-hearing peers as they interact every day with a world that doesn’t speak their language? This TED Talk states that 9 out of every 10 children who are born deaf have parents who can hear. Of these, only 10% learn to communicate clearly with their deaf children.

These stats kept me up at night. A few weeks later, I found myself having lunch with Anthea. She told me about ‘Hush. Gives Dreams’ – an empowerment fund that supports the deaf TeaRistas to follow their dreams and be who they want to be. I learned that Grace was Hush’s first employee and she wants to be an actor. Kim, her colleague, wants to be a dog trainer. Ee Wun’s dream is to be a visual artist, Lily wants to be a speaker and lecturer, and Mimi wants to empower deaf people through handicraft making.

As I listened, it occurred to me that I’d never considered adding sign language to my repertoire – but now the idea seemed fascinating. By the end of lunch, I’d signed up to volunteer for Singapore’s first-ever ‘Rush to Hush’ pop-up silent tea experience, that opens to the general public on 25 February. For me, this is hopefully the start of new friendships, some answers, and probably many more questions. And I’m sure I’ll pick up a few signs along the way.

I walked home, warmed by Singapore’s sun, thinking about Anthea and the TeaRistas. I imagined a world where the lack of sound doesn’t disempower, and visual languages are recognised as social currency. Where signing (or Braille for that matter), are options – along with French and Spanish in school. A more inclusive world where everyone can share the spotlight. Perhaps then, the songs and dreams brewing in silence might find their melodies and shine.


Hush is a social enterprise founded by Anthea Ong in 2014. ‘Hush@Workplace’ brings the practice of mindfulness and appreciation to corporate offices through a silent tea ritual led by deaf TeaRistas. Its clients include the Developmental Bank of Singapore (DBS), the Ministry of Transport, British Council and the US Embassy among others. Visit the website.

Spread the word and buy a ticket for the first Rush to Hush session here.