Hamburgers, hot dogs, and barbeque sizzling on the grill. Traffic slowly creeping toward beaches to escape the summer heat. Red, white, and blue decorations draped on homes and businesses, waiting for a breeze. Young and old alike eagerly anticipating sundown, and the day’s crescendo of fireworks exploding in the skies. For the United States, these rituals can be found throughout the country when celebrating the Fourth of July, arguably the most American of all holidays.
But what do Americans do when they live, work, and study abroad? According to The Association of Americans Resident Overseas, 8.7 million Americans (excluding military servicemembers) live in more than 160 countries abroad, which is more than the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined. Missing the familiar food, music, celebrations, and traditions of home can be tough, especially when memories of home come flooding back on special days.
Americans live abroad for a variety of reasons. Military assignments, romantic relationships, work opportunities, cultural explorations, family obligations, or studying abroad can all land you and your family in unfamiliar surroundings.
How Military Servicemembers Celebrate the Fourth of July Abroad
U.S. military servicemembers could be stationed abroad for many years, without the opportunity to return home until the end of their assignment. Luckily, military bases overseas are some of the best places to find American celebrations, especially for the Fourth of July.
“I have lived overseas since I was seven years old, graduated high school on the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk, and returned to my ‘hometown’ of Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka, after graduating from California State University, Fullerton,” says Rhea Poffenbarger, assistant vice president of operation and enrollment management at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) Asia division. “Although we are not in the United States, military installations overseas do feel like a little piece of home.”
Poffenbarger says military bases have large celebrations for the Fourth of July , and events such as base celebrations and fireworks happen each year.
“There are American products, fast-food chains, and American celebrations like the Fourth of July,” says Poffenbarger. “Sometimes we forget we are on a military base in the middle of a Japanese city! It’s common to see everyone decked out in red, white, and blue to celebrate the day.”
Depending on which country, many military bases combine both American celebrations with local customs and events. Americans come from all different backgrounds and blending traditions with other celebrations is one of the best ways to honor Independence Day.
“As a kid, I remember roaming around the base with my friends exploring the various food stalls that featured American and Japanese cuisine while waiting for the sun to set to watch the fireworks display. The local nationals would also join in on the celebration as it was an opportunity for them to come on-base and experience an American celebration,” says Poffenbarger. “Ironically, I didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July in the United States until I was in college and my son, now 7 years old, has only celebrated here in Japan.”
Travis McKinney is a program and national test center coordinator at UMGC and is currently living abroad in Belgium. He is a military spouse, and his wife has served in the military for over 20 years.
“The Fourth of July is the day after my birthday, so this holiday in particular is very special to me,” says McKinney. “My favorite memory of celebrating the Fourth of July was visiting family in Georgia. We had a picnic in the park, combined with what turned out to be a surprise birthday party for me. On that day I was surrounded by family members, both young and old, who I had not seen in years.”
Now living in Belgium, McKinney celebrates the Fourth of July with his family on the NATO base. While it is different than his experiences back in the U.S., the base celebrates not only American holidays but the holidays of other countries as well.
“I'm stationed at the NATO base here in Belgium, which is composed of 31 nations. Throughout the year, many of these nations host festivals that highlight certain aspects of their countries. When the U.S. celebrates the Fourth of July on base, the theme rivals the best of all carnival attractions,” says McKinney. “What makes the Fourth of July even more special is that other countries can see the excitement and unity that exudes from Americans as we express the appreciation of our freedom. I am pleased that my family can take part in this event every year on base, as it helps to instill in them the importance of sharing the love of our country with other nations.”
Charles Moore, program coordinator at UMGC, has lived abroad for over 20 years. He joined the U.S. Air Force and has lived all over the world including in Korea and Turkey. He and his family have been living in Germany for the past 14 years and have enjoyed the celebrations on military bases for the Fourth of July.
“It definitely feels different celebrating the Fourth of July while abroad,” says Moore. “As a part of the military, it’s a great reminder of my work and the values I uphold, and it’s really special to share this celebration with local communities around the world.”
For people who are adjusting to living abroad, Moore thinks that the Fourth of July celebrations at the military bases are an excellent way to meet people and become a part of a community.
“Just get out there and make some friends. It’s phenomenal what these bases do, like Freedom fest, rides, free food, and bands,” says Moore. “It’s a great opportunity to experience something different, and it’s a time to come together with other people and live a little.”
While celebrating the Fourth of July outside of the United States can feel strange, it can be a memorable opportunity that not everyone is able to experience.
“Being overseas is what you make it. You should take advantage of what the base has to offer and to gain those unique experiences abroad,” says Moore. “Work is hard but it’s good to go out and get rejuvenated and remember why you’re there, which can make things a lot easier.”
Other Ways to Celebrate the Fourth of July Abroad
Those who are abroad for non-military reasons may need to be a little more creative in how they celebrate. If you are feeling homesick, you could watch patriotic or familiar movies you watched at home during this time, or livestream Fourth of July parades or the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular depending on the time zone. While these are not the same as being at home, they can offer some comfort.
If you are missing family or friends, it could be a great time to call or video chat with loved ones. Since a majority of people don’t have work because of the holiday, you could schedule some time to catch up with anybody you’re missing. This can help you stay connected no matter where you are in the world.
“Celebrating the holidays while abroad can be very challenging, and you may experience the ‘holiday blues’. But we do not have to forget about traditions that we hold near and dear. Rather, we can embrace new traditions as we experience different countries and cultures,” says McKinney. “It is also important to be an advocate of one’s mental health, so utilizing the mental health resources offered by local organizations is vital. UMGC Europe students, can take advantage of the counseling that UMGC Europe offers.”
Another fun way to celebrate the Fourth of July is through a taste of home. If you have the space, you could invite friends over for a barbeque. You could share your Fourth of July traditions, and even make new ones. If you can’t barbeque, there is no shortage of American-style food around the world: you can look up local restaurants that serve burgers, BBQ, or any comfort food you would prefer. Since the Fourth of July isn’t an international holiday, you won’t have to worry about restaurants or shops being closed for the occasion.
Depending on where you live in the world, there may be local expat (someone who lives outside of their native country) communities that will be celebrating the Fourth of July. Every year in London, England, is the American Beer Festival on July 4, and past celebrations have included live music, and “All-American barbeque,” and even a mechanical bull. There are also Fourth of July festivities in countries including Argentina, China, France, Denmark, and Australia. You can check local community forums to see if there’s anything happening nearby.
Whether you plan to spend the Fourth of July grilling burgers, spending time with family, or making new memories, it’s a day for Americans worldwide to share in honoring the U.S. and its history. With over 175 locations worldwide, the UMGC community stretches across the globe and understands the experiences and challenges people face when they live abroad. No matter how or where you are on the Fourth of July, UMGC hopes that you have an enjoyable and relaxing holiday.