iChongqing Title

Unspoken Bonds: The Love Language of a Silent Cafe

By Dai Yuan|Jun 08,2023

Chongqing - On the counter of Yijiao Cafe, a prominent sign stands aside with two writing pads, saying, “We are hearing-impaired; please write down your order, thanks.” Next to the humming coffee machine, baristas greeted customers with smiles and made simple gestures to say, “Order received.” 

This is a cafe opened for hearing-impaired baristas in Southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality.

Zeng Zheng, the most senior barista here, used to be a colorist with great enthusiasm for coffee. The intense aroma and subtle flavor of coffee always fascinate him, “for instance, Ethiopian specialty coffee beans give notes of floral, citrus, and lemon,” Zeng typed.

Winning two prizes in local contests for baristas with disabilities, Zeng hadn’t had a chance to make a career as a barista. It seemed impossible for a cafe to accept a hearing-impaired barista, and he was short on funds to start his cafe. “I had a few jobs and used to work for a living, but now I work for love,” Zeng typed.

Zhang Lingyun, another barista, shares his love for the job. Zhang used to work the night shift in a famous fast-food chain store. She can hardly connect with colleagues and fails to get other employment due to her hearing impairment.

A regular customer passes the writing pad to the barista and uses sign langue to say thank you. (Photo/Guo Shuyu)

Now, Zhang finds it fulfilling working at Yijiao Cafe, where she enjoys coffee and communicates with colleagues and friends. “I feel warm that my work means something when customers draw heart shapes on the pad. I want to be a great barista and help my peers to get a job,” Zhang typed.

According to Zhu Jiayun, initiator of the Yijiao Cafe, the name Yijiao came from The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein. In the story, a circle goes on a journey to find its missing pie-shaped corner; when finding the perfect match, it rolls too fast to enjoy daily pleasures. Eventually, it releases the piece and goes on its merry way.

Zhu said Yijiao can be interpreted as a corner or 0.1 yuan in Chinese. “I chose the name for three reasons. Firstly, everyone should accept the fact that we are imperfection. Secondly, people with disabilities should not be left in the ignored corner of society. Lastly, with every cup sold, we donate 0.1 yuan to charity,” said Zhu.

The image on Yijiao’s cup shows sign language, meaning “I love you.” (photo/Guo Shuyu)

The idea of helping people with disabilities can trace back to Zhu’s army days when he participated in an earthquake rescue. “I saw people lost their lives and some disabled by the earthquake, “Zhu recalled.” I was shocked. Since then, I felt a strong urge to help them.”

In 2022, Zhu opened the first Yijiao Cafe and started a free-of-charge barista training program for the hearing-impaired. It caught the attention of Li Jiayan, the charity project manager of Songshan Hospital.

“We share the same value of helping those in need. Plus, Yijiao can be self-sustained by combining charity and business. So we decided to provide a rent-free venue for Yijiao to create more job vacancies for people with disabilities,” Li said.

Each hearing-impaired barista starts work after passing qualification training. (Photo/Songshan Charity)

Songshan Hospital sits in a CBD in Liangjiang New Area, with nine cafes in 500 meters, including some crowded chain stores. In contrast, Yijiao sells about 100 cups daily, which is beyond Zhu’s expectations. 

Many medical workers become regular customers; some have learned to say thank you in sign language, and some are not coffee lovers but are willing to purchase to support the cafe and its donation plan. The cafe has donated 390.7 yuan to charity since it opened this January.

In the backyard of the cafe, a rosemary shrub is thriving. Baristas use it to make Yijiao’s special coffee, named after the hospital as a thank you. The sweet-smelling shrub is planted by kids from another charity project of Songshan.

“The kids come to the cafe for weekly events and care for the plants. It makes them see the minority group and learn to be loving, caring for those in need,” said Li.

Hearing-impaired baristas of Yijiao Coffee. (Photo/Songshan Charity)

(The article is contributed by Guo Shuyu from Liangjiang New Area Media Center)


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