How I only expensed $156.92 for a week long oversea business trip

P Chang
4 min readMar 12, 2024

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I have been enjoying the clips of a comedian who is super popular on social media to poke fun of the work culture differences between US and Europe.

I hope that one day we’ll have another Joe Wong-type comedian to poke fun at the culture shock experienced by US bosses when dealing with their Chinese counterparts. However, I must admit that the opportunity for such humor may have passed us by. The gap in understanding might have grown even wider and more obscure, reaching a point where it’s no longer amusing.

Allow me to share my first story in this vein. After working with American and Canadian bosses for seven years, I landed a job focused on expanding engineering resources overseas. This was during the early days of outsourcing engineering efforts from Silicon Valley to countries like India and China. The primary allure for me was the chance to work in a city often hailed as the ‘Venice of the Orient,’ founded in 514 BC. Finally, I had the opportunity to frequently visit it on the company’s dime!

On my first day of work, my baby-faced manager gave me an order: ‘I will give you a budget to hire two dozens test engineers there. Go get them!’ During our chitchat, I discovered that one of my college classmates was his academic idol and inspiration figure during his college days. My classmate was also a vice president of the prestigious college he graduated from. I made a mental note never to mention that I was his idol’s classmate in our future chitchats.

Hiring twenty people within six months seemed like a daunting task, but with the help of the local GM and HR, I managed to hire the first batch of four. This achievement gave me enough reason to apply for my first (business) trip to that ancient city.

The entire approval chain was remarkably frugal, all the way up to our CTO/co-founder. The city was about 60 miles away from Shanghai, and, at that time, the bullet train era had yet to begin. I was supposed to immediately take a long-distance bus to that city as the train would take twice as long to get there. However, the long-distance bus station was located in the inner city of Shanghai, while my landing airport was 30 miles away, requiring at least an hour on an airport bus line.

The Beijing University and Stanford graduate, who was the local GM, reviewed my itinerary and pointed out the necessity for me to stay overnight in Shanghai. My landing time was near 9 pm, and it was considered unsafe to take a long-distance bus near midnight, especially as a female traveler. Back then, in China, long-distance buses were the cheapest means of transportation, mostly used by blue-collar workers and peasants, and trains operated only during the daytime.

This violated the company’s HR policy, as I was the first female manager traveling alone there. Despite heavy scrutiny by our VP/CTO/founders, the local GM insisted, and eventually, the founder’s almighty-do-everything admin booked me a hotel near the bus station.

Upon finally arriving at our company’s branch in that city, the GM welcomed me with a deck of coupons. I was supposed to eat with the employees, using catering services the GM negotiated at a great discount but still managed to be delicious and healthy.

The GM lived in a 4-bedroom apartment rented by the company and also acted as a mini-hotel manager, serving overseas travelers like me. During my first stay, I happened to be the only guest.

As a person who easily makes new friends, I found the situation awkward and felt sorry for the GM. My baby-faced manager ensured I didn’t waste a minute during my stay. In order to get his first line approval, I even wrote down my business trip agenda, detailing every 15 minutes of what I was supposed to do.

I was greeted by my four wide-eyed, fresh-from-college engineers. Two of them stay connected with me till this day. Our salary offering was also super low, even by Chinese standards. This posed a significant challenge for our local GM, HR, leaders, and their US counterparts like myself to keep the initial training wheels running high and employ various tactics to retain the talents as they improved and began performing. Many of them left for better opportunities as soon as they got a good grasp of what we trained them to do.

So, the GM came up with a better idea: hiring some female engineers aiming to do some matchmaking, hoping to persuade more engineers to stay with us. But that’s a story for another time.

In the end, when I came back and reported all the qualified expenses, I could only claim $156.92 for my entire week’s stay there, excluding airfare and the Shanghai hotel fee. I was the first person helped to setup the company’s policy of allowing a US lead to stay overnight at a hotel in Shanghai, female only.

I stared at that $156.92 for a long time with disbelief because my last ad-hoc two-day business trip from the previous company I worked for, from San Jose to Seattle, cost the company around $2500. This $156.92 set a low record that I bet no other company could beat.

A record for a lifetime.

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P Chang

It all started with the 2020 SIP, when suddenly you became very reflective.