Service with a dimpled smile and a flower
“We want to communicate with normal people, but we fear rejection and we don’t want to trouble them.”
The speaker is 23-year-old Hua Yuxin, who suffers a hearing loss. A barista at a cafe called Lili Time, he goes by the nickname Xiaoyu. For hearing-impaired people, nicknames are more easily expressed in sign language.
Located on Mengzi Road E., the coffee shop employs seven deaf or hard-of-hearing people born mainly in the 1980s and 90s. It offers them an opportunity to step outside their small, silent world and connect with the wider society.
Lili is both the name of the cafe’s founder and an abbreviation for “love is life illumed,” which is the slogan of the shop.
Entering Lili, I feel like I am in a gallery. The shop is filled with oil paintings and wall art created by Lin Ying, who suffered a hearing loss from a drug allergy when she was only eight months old.
Finding her passion in painting, Lin is devoted to artistic creation. She was invited to paint a wall at Lili Time by its founder Zhang Lili. Visiting Lin’s home, Zhang was touched by the stories behind the paintings.
“I can’t hear the sound of wind, but I can see it.” Those words appear under a Lin painting entitled “Sound of Wind.”
By hanging Lin’s paintings in her coffee shop, Zhang helped Lin realize her dream of organizing an exhibition of her works.
Some of her paintings have sold for 170,000 yuan (US$24,000). All the money goes to Lin, who is saving up for her deaf daughter to have cochlear implant surgery.
“Although I have been deaf since childhood, I accept my fate,” Lin says in a sign language video. “It allows me to use my heart to listen to the world. Painting is my best friend. In its world, I can express my joy and sorrow. I can communicate with people.”
To promote Lin’s talent, Lili Time has initiated the “Flowing Art Gallery” project, which extends her artwork to products, such as coffee sachets, postcards and tote bags.
“Lili Time is a stage where people with dreams can exhibit their talent,” says Zhang, 42.
I have hardly sat down at the table when Xiaoyu comes to me with a basket of flowers. He takes out a blue booklet from the pocket of his apron and shows me the words: “Hello, my name is Xiaoyu. Nice to meet you. Our coffee shop gives a flower to every female customer. Hope you like it.”
I choose a pink carnation of delicate bloom. What’s sweeter is Xiaoyu’s smile, which features a dimple on the right side of his cheek.
“Their smiles always give me a lot of comfort,” says Zhang. “As we get older, there are more troubles we need to confront, and it is often harder to smile. However, I am happy when I am with the people with hearing loss. They are beautifully unpretentious.”
Beyond Xiaoyu’s engaging smile is a tale of hard times. His father passed away when he was a little boy and his mother remarried. Xiaoyu was brought up by his grandparents, who insisted on voice training. Thanks to them, Xiaoyu is able to talk somewhat.
During our encounter, Xiaoyu closely watches my lips and tries to understand what I am saying. Following Zhang’s advice, I say words slowly and clearly, but I still need Zhang’s help because the grammar of spoken language is different from that of sign language.
“In order to be reunited with my girlfriend, I came from northeast China to Shanghai in February last year,” says Xiaoyu. “On the introduction of a friend, I applied for the job at Lili Time. Luckily, I got the job and started to learn making coffee.”
Xiaoyu calls Zhang and her husband godparents, fondly referring to the “family” of the cafe.
In that family is 20-year-old Liu Guowen, who began working as a barista at Lili Time after quitting a job as a company illustrator. The job was too stressful. When he first came to Lili Time, his demeanor was dour, with few smiles. Nowadays, all that has changed.
Other members of the “silent family” at the cafe are Gao Ting, a barista who loves dancing, and Auntie Yang, who is responsible for cooking and is learning floral design in her spare time. Her teachers are the floral designer Cai Zhenjun, who goes by the nickname Zhujun, and two others with hearing loss. The trio have established a studio called Foru. It focuses on flowers, scented candles and handmade soaps, which are sold at Lili Time.
“Apart from my relatives, the people I connected with most in my hometown were other people with hearing loss,” says Xiaoyu. “If I hadn’t come to Shanghai, I would be working in a local factory. I am grateful that I made the right decision.”
One of the original coffee drinks created by Xiaoyu mixes cow’s milk with soya milk. Other innovative coffee served at the cafe include one utilizing time-honored White Rabbit-brand candy, one embellished with an attractive strawberry, one with quinoa and oat milk, one flavored with sweet-scented osmanthus and one topped with avocado puree.
The last two drinks were created by A Ken, the first hearing-impaired person Zhang ever met.
“I encountered him in 2013, when I opened another cafe,” says Zhang.
Before leaving the cafe one day, he left a note on the table saying: “I am deaf, but I really like the atmosphere here. Can I learn to make coffee in your cafe?”
Zhang decided to give him a chance, and that gave her the idea of opening a cafe entirely operated by hearing-impaired people.
Her first attempt at that dream ended in failure in 2015 because of high rent and low public acceptance. So she altered her concept and created a space where people with hearing impairment could work side by side with those of normal hearing.
“Lili Time serves as a bridge linking the two groups,” says Zhang.
There are three staff with normal hearing at Lili Time. They are mainly responsible for publicity and operations.
According to Zhang, the staff sit down for a 15-minute coffee break every day to discuss their personal lives.
“I encourage my team to communicate through listening and speaking rather than writing,” says Zhang. “Communication is a very important skill. I want these young people with hearing loss to be able to step confidently into society in the future.”
A “Family Day” activity is held monthly, inviting staff, their family members and the patrons of the cafe to come together.
For “Family Day” in April, every person brought a dish they cooked at home and then voted for the best one. This month, Zhang closed the coffee shop for a day and a half for a staff outing.
“My task is to create a family,” says Zhang. “In my eyes, people with hearing loss are not vulnerable. They are simply people whose language skills are different from ours.”
Lili Time is the city’s first cafe to be designated a Charity and Voluntary Services Center. A total of 67 classes have been offered there, including sign language, Shanghai dialect, Japanese, dancing, make-up, coffee-making and DIY workshops. The teachers are cafe staff, regular customers and retired people living nearby.
The cafe has become a gathering place for neighborhood residents. Four retired people play musical instruments like the saxophone and guitar there every week.
Zhang is not short of ambitions. She now wants to create a training center to teach people with hearing loss how to make coffee.
“Those of us who hear and those of us who don’t need each other,” says Zhang.
“I try to provide a safe and sound environment to help the hearing-impaired hone skills and adopt a good mental outlook. At the same time, they bring a lot to me. I have learned from them to be happier and more grateful for the good things in life.”