Pouring microfoam into a cup of espresso, Lan Liping deftly “drew” a tulip on top of a latte.
The scene at a Starbucks outlet in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is no different from others, except for the fact that the coffee shop is staffed with hearing-impaired baristas like Lan.
Born in eastern China’s Fujian Province, Lan permanently lost part of his hearing at the age of five after a fever.
Two years ago, while working at an advertising firm, Lan came across coffee making and immediately fell in love with it. He decided to make coffee his new career.
Due to his hearing impairment, Lan encountered more difficulties than he had thought while learning to make coffee and later in his daily work as well.
“Baristas need to talk face to face with customers and understand their demands, which requires me to read their lips,” Lan said.
“Even with a hearing aid, many times I couldn’t immediately respond to customers and sometimes even misunderstood what they wanted,” he said, adding that luckily most of the customers were very considerate.
After painstaking practice, Lan now can handle all kinds of situations at work by himself and makes about 100 coffees every day. In terms of latte art, he has mastered complicated patterns such as a tulip or a swan.
His co-workers also lend a helping hand. At the cafe where Lan works, 16 staff members with normal hearing and skilled at sign language work side by side with 12 hearing-impaired to better serve customers.
The Starbucks outlet, the first one in the Chinese mainland with hearing-impaired baristas, also allows people to order without saying a word, but by writing on pads or using paper menus, according to Lin Shaoxuan, a co-worker of Lan.
In addition, all the drinks and snacks are numbered to facilitate easy ordering, and customers can also choose to write down their specific needs.
While serving his customers, Lan also serves as an ambassador of the coffee culture, trying to popularize coffee tips among his customers. In the meantime, he gradually built up his fan base.
“Hand drip coffees made by different baristas taste quite differently,” he said. “Regular customers always come to the store and ask me to make coffee for them, which makes me very happy.”
In many ways, grinding coffee beans and making hand drip coffee have added a special flavor to Lan’s life.
“Creating latte art bears many similarities with design, which was my former career, as they both require a high degree of creativity,” he said.
Being a barista also made Lan more confident and more optimistic about the future.
In a national-level vocational skill competition for persons with disabilities held last month, Lan took part in a coffee-making competition with 23 contestants and finished sixth in the final.
“I believe that in the future, more people with disabilities like me can find things they have a deep love for,” he said.