Mae Ngai

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Mae Ngai
Mae Ngai 2012.jpg
Ngai speaking in 2012
OccupationHistorian; author; professor
Known forImpossible Subjects
AwardsFrederick Jackson Turner Award
Academic background
Alma materEmpire State College (BA)
Columbia University (MA, PhD)
Doctoral advisorEric Foner
Academic work
InstitutionsColumbia University
University of Chicago
Main interestsAmerican history
Mae Ngai
Traditional Chinese

Mae Ngai is an American historian and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University.[1] She focuses on nationalism, citizenship, ethnicity, immigration, and race in 20th-century United States history.


Ngai is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and describes herself as a student who took a non-traditional route. She took a break from her schooling in 1972 to work as a community activist. After working in the Education and Political Action Department and the Consortium for Worker Education as a researcher and professional labor educator in an environment "where being Chinese and being American existed in tension, but not in contradiction,"[2] Ngai decided to pursue graduate school focusing on immigration studies.[3]


Ngai graduated from Empire State College with a BA, from Columbia University with a M.A. in 1993, and Ph.D. in 1998, where she wrote her dissertation under Eric Foner.[4]

After graduation, Ngai obtained postdoctoral fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, the New York University School of Law, and, in 2003, the Radcliffe Institute.[4] She taught at the University of Chicago as an associate professor before returning to Columbia as a full professor in 2006.[5]


Ngai is especially interested in problems of nationalism, citizenship, and race as they are produced historically in law and society, in processes of transnational migration, and in the formation of ethno-racial communities.[6]

In addition to publishing in numerous academic journals, Ngai has written on immigration and related policy for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the Boston Review.[5]

Ngai's most notable work is Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America which discusses the creation of the legal category of an "illegal alien" in the early 20th century, and its social and historical consequences and context.[2]

Courses Taught[1][edit]

  • Immigrants in American History and Life, Lecture
  • Colonization/Decolonization, Undergraduate Seminar
  • Transnational Migration and Citizenship, Graduate & Undergraduate Seminar
  • Historiography for PhD students


  • Shelby Collum Davis for Historical Studies, Princeton University, Spring 2018
  • Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the North, Library of Congress, Fall 2017
  • Huntington Library, Spring 2017
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2013
  • OAH-AHRAC China Residency Program, 2013
  • Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, 2012
  • Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, New York Public Library, 2012
  • Institute for Advanced Study, 2009
  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 2009
  • Huntington Library, 2006
  • Frederick Jackson Turner Award, Organization of American Historians for Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, 2005
  • Theodore Saloutos Book Award, the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, 2004
  • Littleton-Griswold Prize, the American Historical Association, 2004
  • Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, 2003
  • NYU Law School, 2000
  • Social Science Research Council, 1999


  • "The Strange Career of the Illegal Alien", Law and History Review, Spring 2003, Vol. 21 No. 1
  • "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law", The Journal of American History, June 1999, Vol. 86 No. 1
  • Ngai, Mae (September–October 2006). "The Lost Immigration Debate". Boston Review.
  • Ngai, Mae M. (May 16, 2006). "How grandma got legal". The Los Angeles Times.
  • Mae M. Ngai (June 14, 2005). "We Need a Deportation Deadline". The Washington Post.
  • Ngai, Mae (2011) "A Slight Knowledge of the Barbarian Language": Chinese Interpreters in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century America"[7]
  • Ngai, Mae (January 28, 2018). "Immigration Border-Enforcement Myth". NYTimes.
  • Ngai, Mae (March 2015). "Chinese Gold Minders and the "Chinese Question" in Nineteenth-Century California and Victoria"[8]



  1. ^ a b c "Department of History - Columbia University: Ngai, Mae". Retrieved 25 February 2020.
  2. ^ a b Ngai, Mae (2004). Impossible Subjects. Princeton University Press.
  3. ^ Costantini, Peter (2019-01-16). "Reflects on how a century of immigration law created a crisis". Foreign Policy In Focus. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  4. ^ a b "Current Fellows: Mae M. Ngai". Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Archived from the original on 2008-02-22. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
  5. ^ a b "Mae Ngai". Columbia University Department of History.
  6. ^ "Mae M. Ngai | OAH". Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  7. ^ Ngai, Mae (Winter 2011). ""A Slight Knowledge of the Barbarian Language": Chinese Interpreters in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century America". Journal of American Ethnic History. 30 (2): 05. doi:10.5406/jamerethnhist.30.2.0005.
  8. ^ Mississippi Valley Historical Association. Organization of American Historians. JSTOR (Organization) (2015). The journal of American history. Mississippi Valley Historical Association. OCLC 984705070.

External links[edit]