I turned down a better-paying opportunity out of college in the mid-1980s for a position helping newly arrived Vietnamese refugees find jobs. My explanation to those who asked was that I came of age during the 1975 fall of Saigon, and remembered the images of all the people we left behind, the same people eventually finding their way here as refugees. It was my moral duty to do what others had failed to do, I said.
About a year into placing mainly former South Vietnamese soldiers in jobs, I had a Vietnamese woman come in: Her cleavage and high heels contrasted with the puffy face of middle age. About the first thing she said to me was how big and handsome I was. In broken, singsong English, she continued with compliments about my manliness, as I tried to keep my jaw closed long enough to finish the paperwork. She said, "I want job like her," pointing to our Vietnamese caseworker.
After the client left, the caseworker, an aristocratic Vietnamese refugee, rubbed her arms as if trying to scrub away our new client's presence, and said: "She makes me feel dirty."
Given the client's poor English - and especially her dress and demeanor - I knew there wasn't a possibility of an office job. So I somewhat nervously arranged an interview for a hotel housekeeping position. The old man who ran housekeeping intimidated me, barely concealing his bitterness about the course of his life, which had taken him, as he neared retirement, as far as a windowless office across from a basement laundry. But he hired a lot of my clients, and I valued his opinion.
So when I took my new client to him, and she began talking about office jobs and started the same flirtatious routine with him, I stood up, ended the interview abruptly, and briskly escorted her to the subway.
Back in the office, the caseworker scolded me for not listening to her and tossed the client folder in the trash. I was both relieved and horrified watching it drop in.
On one hand, I was disgusted by this client's flirtation and unrealistic expectations, and frustrated that she wasn't satisfied with the job that I could get her. On the other hand, how could I abandon her likethe former policymakers I always criticized?
I waited until the caseworker left and fished out the folder, deciding I'd lay down the law with the client and start the whole thing over. The next week, I called the hotel. When I mentioned the interview, my guy there interrupted me with a clearing of his throat. He sheepishly said that my client was already working there. She'd come back on her own the next day, and he'd hired her to work with him in the office because he needed help with all the Vietnamese people in housekeeping.
A few days later, the client appeared at my office with paperwork. Our case worker's face dropped as I retrieved the client's folder from under a pile on my desk and handed it to her to file. I wanly congratulated the client. "I think older men nicer than younger men in America," was all she said, before she walked out.
I suddenly saw that I wasn't so different from the Vietnam-era policymakers I criticized. In all my fraught decision-making about what job she could work and through my moral struggles to overcome my distaste for her, I was acting as though she were an inanimate object.
I'd forgotten that she was, herself, an actor with ambitions and plans in this moral play, and that she was making judgments about me, too. I vowed never again to reduce the messy, unfathomable complexity of others to a mere symbol of my good intentions. My own personal Saigon was falling, and my feeling of moral superiority was fast falling with it.
• Alex Kronemer is a public television documentary producer.