Ever wondered what it might be like to communicate amidst silence?
I caught up with Anthea Ong, founder of Hush Tea Bar, a social enterprise which aims to encourage self-care and social inclusion through their roving tea bar.
Anthea greets me warmly with a sincere smile and a firm handshake as I introduce myself and thank her for making time for our interview. Her schedule is jam packed with back to back activities, and she’s picked hot chocolate as a perk-me-up after a long day of work.
She fills me in on the details about the Hush experience, and leaves me craving for a mental spa myself.
It All Began As a Social Experiment
Started in late 2014, Hush Tea Bar allows both the hearing and non-hearing to collaborate effectively. They work on bringing tea appreciation sessions to corporate offices, aimed at driving the message of self-care and social inclusion into our society.
“Hush actually started out as a social experiment, ”Anthea explains. Back then, she observed how people could spend 16 hours a day at work, leaving them very little time (or none at all) to have quiet time to reflect.
She cites her desire to “find something that brings self-care and social inclusion into every workplace” as the main motivation behind Hush.
One thing unique about Hush is that it works with individuals from the deaf community and those with mental health issues.
“I had a deep concern regarding the mental health epidemic,’ Anthea elaborates, “an issue we are facing not only as a society but also across the world.”
Mental health is no foreign struggle to Anthea; she reveals that she herself had battled with mental health issues 12 years back. As a result, Anthea is able to empathise and understand the challenges mental health survivors face.
Anthea also talks about her concerns regarding the “increasing polarization of our society,” where there is not much social inclusion for differently-abled communities. She is adamant about not referring to them as disabled.
She hopes for Hush to be “a space where we bring seemingly disparate communities together”, to cultivate a conducive environment for “experiential empathy”.
Much More Than A Roving Tea Bar
Hush seems to be one of the most creative social enterprises there are today.
Tea appreciation sessions are led by Hush’s tearistas, an affectionate term for their non-hearing tea appreciation facilitators. The entire experience comprises of four main experiential zones : Intention, Hush, Expression and Sharing.
Upon entering the space, the hearing participants are given earplugs immediately. They begin interacting with the non-hearing facilitators by learning some simple sign language.
The participants choose from a variety of teas —which are given name such as sweetly intimate and freshly tranquil, aptly based on moods. “These are the moods which busy urbanites have long forgotten,” quips Anthea, and I cannot help but nod fervently in agreement.
The next zone is the Hush Zone, where participants are taught a tea appreciation ritual, lead by the non-hearing facilitators. These rituals invite participants to take deep breaths and connect with themselves.
I was particularly drawn to the next phase of the Hush experience —the Expression Zone.
Participants are given ink and are encouraged to dip their fingers in the ink and create art — drawing whatever comes to mind. A fun fact? The ink is made from the very same tea that participants enjoyed during the tea appreciation ritual!
It is during this time that they are handed a small card, on which they are encouraged to pen an inspiring message for future participants.
The Hush experience concludes at the Reflection Zone, where hearing participants are allowed to remove their earplugs and get to share their experience with their colleagues.
A contented smile spreads across Anthea’s face as she tells me how the sharing sessions really changes company culture and re-aligns “hierarchical separation, which brings humanity out of all of us”.
Disconnect To Connect
Since Hush has been up and running for approximately three years now, I ask Anthea if she can share the highlights of her unique journey.
She relates two experiences which she found especially moving. The first story involves a senior director of a British organization, who broke down after the session. Anthea explains that during that particular tea ritual, participants were asked to wish themselves well.
“Simple wishes, like ‘may I be happy, may I be well’ – she couldn’t do it,” recalls Anthea. The senior director’s main takeaway from that session was : “If we can’t love ourselves, how can we spread love to others?”
The next tale involves an experienced doctor of 35 years who works under the Ministry of Health (MOH). He summed up his Hush encounter in just one concise, yet compelling statement: “This is the first time I’ve heard my own heartbeat, even though I hear heartbeats every day.”
Apart from bringing their tea appreciation sessions to corporate offices, Hush also aims to extend their social impact to the youths in Singapore through YoungXHush – fuelled by Anthea’s concerns about the rising rates of mental health issues among youths.
Depression and other mental health issues are affecting “younger, and a higher numbers of adolescents”, according to Anthea.
“We found out that students like learning to sign.”
The movement will revolve around promoting stress reduction and breathing, and will also help students learn to express emotions through sign language.
Anthea talks about how the sign language taught to the teens to express “a whole plethora of emotions, from clearly negative to clearly positive, and everything in between.”
While younger teens may not have the vocabulary to express their feelings, “it’s not cool to talk about emotions” among the older ones. Sign language gives them a safe space to release their emotions instead of bottling it up.
By learning sign language, Anthea feels that this will aid in the youth’s “perspective-taking”, and help them become more empathetic towards the differently abled.
Not A Walk In The Park
It certainly isn’t easy managing two very differently abled groups of people. Anthea, who previously worked in a corporate environment, shares that Hush is substantially different from an MNC, “where everyone is high-achieving and high functioning.”
Anthea is candid in her response when I asked her if she has faced obstacles in maintaining Hush. She shares with me that work is “fraught with challenges, (with) learning opportunities for all including me.”
“Not looking at hush like a typical commercial business helped a lot,”she explains. She stresses that understanding that a social enterprise may not grow at the speed of a normal business is crucial to managing expectations.
She adds that her non-hearing colleagues often feel “like they’ve been sidelined,” —a result of not being often entrusted with important tasks at previous jobs. Considering that they have gotten accustomed to such treatment for as long as they can remember, it is not surprising that “they are not confident or comfortable at all with stepping up”.
Anthea beams with pride as she tells me that all her colleagues now run the projects on their own, requiring much less supervision than when they first started out.
Anthea then says something which might speak for most, if not all social entrepreneurs : “If I would take anything as an indicator of my investments, that is a big one – that kind of investment far exceeds financial returns.”
If you are keen to intern or volunteer as part of the Hush team, visit their website here.