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Category Archives: Deaf Culture around the world

Visit Two Deaf-Owned Restaurants: Taipei’s Lotus and Bravo

Visit Two Deaf-Owned Restaurants: Taipei’s Lotus and Bravo

Anna Mindess 

As the waitress gently places the closed bud of a lotus flower in my pot of boiling broth, it slowly unfurls to show off its bright purple petals. CAN EAT? I sign to my new acquaintances around the table in this Deaf-owned restaurant. I see a chorus of nodding heads. It’s my first night in Taipei, but I’m already feeling quite at home thanks to the warm welcome from a half-dozen Deaf people and a couple of hearing interpreters who have come to dine with me at Lotus hot pot restaurant.

“Hot pot” refers to a classic Chinese DIY dinner, in which diners cook a variety of thinly sliced meats and a garden of vegetables in their own bubbling pots of broth. But Lotus hot pot is a bit different – and not just because its owner and many of the restaurant staff are Deaf – it also features an extra-healthy menu of organic vegetables, therapeutic broths with your choice of “Chinese medicine base” plus a salad bar of wild mountain herbs “to help remove toxins from the body.”


I look forward to meeting the owner of Lotus and learning his story, but right now, he’s busy in the kitchen. So, it’s time to eat. The server brings out platters of assorted cut-up veggies, sliced meats, fish balls, plus the shellfish I ordered. And here‘s my next challenge. After being an American Sign Language interpreter and hanging out with Deaf people for over 30 years, I am used to one of the consequences of a culture that values face-to-face communication above almost anything else: eating cold food. Sure, the food comes out of the kitchen hot. But since a bit of juicy news or a good story needs to be appreciated in its entirety, it would be impolite to interrupt signed remarks for something as basic as enjoying hot food. The food will still be there, albeit a little cooler, when the story is done.
img_5058In the case of a hot pot restaurant, however, each diner must cook the various ingredients in their broth and carefully remove them before they overcook, so that the vegetables don’t become mushy and the meat doesn’t toughen up. As a novice, I am attempting to juggle my chopsticks, the unfamiliar green botanicals and some slippery shellfish while simultaneously trying to converse with a tableful of guests who know varying amounts of ASL. The woman sitting next to me, Ginger Hsu, a hearing Taiwanese Sign Language interpreter who speaks some English, has been looking up on her phone the English words for unfamiliar ingredients. Once she notices that my timing is off and the vegetables in my pot are becoming limp, she volunteers to help cook my dinner while I chat away. What impressed me most during my two weeks in Taiwan was the caring kindness of strangers.

Thanks to the global network of Deaf connections, this evening was organized for me by Will Chin, a thoughtful Taiwanese Deaf man who lived in the US for nine years while he attended Gallaudet, the University of Maryland and later taught.

The chain of Deaf acquaintances that led me to Will started with Melody Stein, who with her husband, runs San Francisco’s famous, Deaf-owned Mozzeria restaurant, which I wrote an article about on the eve of its opening in 2011. A couple of years later, when I was planning a trip to Hong Kong, I remembered that Melody was born there and asked if she had any friends in Hong Kong who might know ASL. She did and made the connection for me to the wonderful Jenny Lam, who had also attended Gallaudet. Jenny organized a dinner for me, much like this one, with a dozen Deaf people who had spent time in the US. Later, she took me an elegant dim sum restaurant because she knew I was writing an article about dim sum. When planning my trip to Taiwan, I contacted Jenny to see if she knew anyone in Taipei who might know ASL. She introduced me to Will Chin. When I emailed him and mentioned that besides being an ASL interpreter, I also write articles about food and culture for magazines and websites, Will knew I would love to visit this Deaf-owned restaurant.

After we finish eating, Will takes me back to the kitchen to meet owner Lu Chia-Hsun and interprets for me between Taiwanese Sign Language and ASL.

Lu previously had an office job, but in 2009, he worked on the International Deaflympics in Taipei. He had become ill because, he tells me, because he ate out a lot and didn’t make healthy choices. After mingling with Deaf athletes from around the world, he realized the importance of good food. When the Deaflympics ended, Lu looked for another job but became frustrated when he was repeatedly turned down. On his travels around Taiwan, he visited the city of Hualien and discovered a healthy hot pot restaurant, Sakura. He thought that opening a branch in Taipei would meet with success, asked his family to support him in this venture, and they agreed. But when Lu approached the owner of Sakura , he was met with resistance. Other people had tried to open branches of this restaurant but they had all failed. And now a deaf person with no restaurant experience! Lu’s family members negotiated on his behalf with the owner, saying if Lu fails, we will take responsibility. The owner finally agreed.

Lu opened the Taipei branch in 2009 and initially, not many customers came. Then slowly, as word spread about this healthy version of classical hot pot, the spot attracted more and more customers. “Business is very good now,” Lu tells me, “except when the weather is too hot. But when it’s cold outside, we have a huge line!”


Will Chin showed me Jiufen and two Deaf-owned restaurants

A few days later, after Will takes me to visit the quaint mountain town of Jiufen, we head back to Taipei for an afternoon coffee at Bravo, another Deaf-owned restaurant. This cozy café sports a sunshiny interior, from its butter yellow walls to its taxicab yellow coffee roaster and espresso machine. Since, like Lotus, this restaurant caters to both Deaf and hearing customers, the walls are decorated with illustrations of some crucial signs – especially for caffeine-deprived customers who need to get their morning fix in a hurry. While we wait for our drinks, I practice the signs for “Good morning, “Coffee,” and “Thank you.”


Johnny Lo makes coffee at Bravo

Will introduces me to husband and wife owners, Johnny Lo and Mandy Chang. Lo tells me that when he decided to open a coffee shop, he was warned that it was a very competitive business. In order to achieve coffee drinks with an exceptional taste, he studied privately with a teacher for a year and a half. And it took six months of practice, he adds, to master the flowers, swans and heart shapes he fashions out of foamed milk to top his coffee drinks.


His little shop attracts both Deaf and hearing customers. The busiest time is 8-10am for regular customers. Saturday is the most popular day for Deaf customers, who in Deaf cultural tradition, tend to stay all day. After their morning cups, they migrate outside to continue their conversations. On weekday afternoons, like today, there is usually a Deaf group around the table, who can sip and chat for hours. But if some new hearing customers come in, as I observe on this day, the Deaf regulars, quickly make space for them to be comfortable.

Lo and his wife, who are Bravo’s only employees, serve just coffee, cocoa and tea drinks plus waffles (in original, green tea and chocolate flavors). Since there are no hearing employees and Lo and his wife are both Deaf, they provide a large placard where customers can point to their drinks of choice.

As Will and I leave, I wiggle both thumbs to sign a big “Thank you” in Taiwanese Sign Language to Johnny and Mandy.


My Enriching Encounters with Japanese Deaf People

ASL class for Deaf Japanese people, near Osaka, Japan

Anna visits ASL class for Deaf Japanese people, near Osaka, Japan


I recently returned from a trip to Kyoto and Osaka Japan, where I had food adventures like this lesson from a sushi fanatic. Also with the help of connections, I got the chance to meet and chat with some deaf people in Japan. Since JSL is very different from ASL, it was lucky for me that many Japanese deaf people are motivated to study ASL because they enjoy traveling and socializing with foreigners. I got invited to visit a few classes in Kyoto and Osaka.

Natsuko and Maru co-teach an ASL classes at night (while teaching JSL by day). Coincidentally, they had met Tom six months ago when they visited Ohlone College to observe teaching methods. Their students were excited to have me visit and asked me to spend the first part of the class introducing myself and my work. They seemed especially interested when I told them that I work mostly in the courtroom doing legal interpreting. The situation in Japan is not what deaf people enjoy in the U.S. So there is not yet legal training offered to JSL interpreters. I stressed the importance of having interpreters with legal training and also told them that working with CDIs (Certified Deaf Interpreters) is often the most effective approach in court. I suggested that if they are in a position to set up interpreting protocols for court, that they begin by having deaf interpreters be part of the process, instead of trying to add them in later, as is the case here.

After that discussion, Natsuko told the class to break up into two teams to play a game. I thought I would just sit and observe, but it turned out that the object of this guessing game was to make ME guess the answers. Each team turned over pictures that Natsuko had prepared and had 2 minutes to huddle and decide on 3 ASL signs to convey the subject of the picture to me. (Of course they were not allowed to use a sign for the name of the object). The first round, the signs they gave me were JAPAN, FAMOUS and HIGH. Hmmm…it took me a minute. I couldn’t think of a Japanese counterpart to the iconic Eiffel Tower or Leaning Tower of Pisa. Finally, I had a thought. “Is it Mount Fuji?” I asked, doubtfully. The team exploded with cheers and high 5’s. Another round produced: JAPAN SPORT FAT. “Sumo wrestling!” I answered confidently. Again, high 5’s and cheers. I had a blast because I love games and I realized this one was also a test of my knowledge of Japanese Culture. After the game, with a close score of 4 to 5, we all went out to an izakaya to drink and eat!

Another evening, I met Danny Gong, an American CODA who now lives in Japan and teaches ASL with DEAF JAPAN . He also makes cute videos, like this one comparing the ASL and JSL signs for SUMMER. Culturally speaking, it makes total sense that the JSL sign looks like a waving fan. (Boy, was it hot there the last few weeks too!)

I also was invited to present a lecture at Kansai Gaidai University for a class called Deaf World Japan, taught by Professor Steven Federowicz who has a blog called Visual Anthropology of Japan. His students are mostly American foreign exchange students, but also a few from other countries. Another day, I came back to his class to see a deaf woman, Ms. Morimoto, present. She told the story of her life with the challenge of dealing with an oral education, trying to learn to speak and lip-read Japanese, the physical punishments students endured at school when they were caught signing and her delight in using JSL.

It seems that there are divisions in the Deaf communities in Japan, some pushing for Signed Japanese, while others advocating for JSL. To demonstrate the difference to these beginning learners of JSL, Ms. Morimoto did a clever demonstration. She first showed the generic sign for EAT in JSL, in which one hand “holds the bowl” and the other uses two fingers to represent the action of bringing chopsticks from the bowl to the mouth.

Okinomiyaki, sushi and takoyaki - mmm...

Okinomiyaki, sushi and takoyaki – mmm…

Then she held up drawings of other specific foods and asked students to show how they would eat a SANDWICH, OKINOMIYAKI (a large vegetable pancake that one slices one piece at a time), SUSHI or TAKOYAKI (a snack of grilled octopus made into a ball that is speared with a toothpick to eat.) Of course, in JSL, EATING each of these foods would require a different sign, as the action required does not resemble bringing rice to the mouth with chopsticks. But, said Ms. Morimoto, Signed Japanese would use the generic sign for EAT + the noun form of each of these foods. I thought this was a great example and also tied back into my fascination with Japanese food.

Balinese Village Where Both Deaf and Hearing Sign

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Here’s an interesting recent article on a certain village in Bali where Deaf and hearing residents all sign an indigenous language called Kata Kolok. (Similar to the situation generations ago on Martha’s Vineyard and a more recently discovered Bedouin tribe in southern Israel). In all these communities with shared access to language, Deaf people are not stigmatized. (Too bad the author of piece on Bali was not able to take a video. It’s hard to get a sense of the sign language from still photos.)